No one was more surprised than I when I actually liked Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004). I mean, after all, it was a dumb stoner comedy brought to us by Danny Leiner, the guy who made Dude, Where’s My Car? (2000). But for some reason, it worked. I think it worked in large part because no one expected it to be any good, so its wigged-out casual surrealism, pop-culture riffs and surprisingly fresh approach to the sub-sub-genre of the stoner comedy probably seemed even better than it was. (Even though I picked up a copy of the film, I’ve never been able to bring myself to test how funny it is the second viewing.)
The inherent problem with that particular kind of success is that it only works once. For the second round, people actually have expectations that have to be met, and with any luck, exceeded. Unfortunately, Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantánamo Bay does neither, though it’s not for want of trying—and that might just be what’s wrong with the movie. I sat through this second effort occasionally snickering—as much or more at the outbursts of homosexual panic by nervous teen fanboys over some of the gags—but mostly wondering why the movie wasn’t working for me. I’m still not entirely sure why.
I certainly wasn’t offended by anything, which probably would disappoint writer-directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (both promoted from having only written the first film), since they’re so obviously trying to offend or at least shock. There’s no other even remotely possible reason why only a very few minutes into the film they arbitrarily insert a wanking scene for Kumar (Kal Penn) that, uh, climaxes in an onrush of Jergens lotion. Some of the audience had the Pavlovian “ewww” response; I shrugged. The film was just putting too much energy into an utterly juvenile gag. It was the sort of thing that might have felt off-the-cuff—almost ad-libbed—in the original. Here, it felt calculated. That’s also the problem with the film’s plot.
The original movie was just a goofy, shambling affair that set up a series of increasingly strange encounters and comic skits. This time there’s something that passes for a plot, with Harold (John Cho) and Kumar getting arrested by Homeland Security for supposedly trying to blow up an airplane en route to Amsterdam. In reality, of course, Kumar was merely trying to get high and his bong ended up being mistaken for a bomb. This is what gets them sent to Guantánamo Bay by the transcendentally stupid head of Homeland Security, Ron Fox (Rob Corddry, Semi-Pro), a man who never met an ethnic group he couldn’t racially profile. This is the one area in which the film scores.
The movie’s depiction of the excesses and unbridled paranoia of post-911 is pretty well judged—with more than a tinge of true subversiveness. The film’s use of grape soda and a bag of coins as Fox’s (I’m sure that name is not accidental) idea of reducing a couple of races to single stereotypes verges on brilliant. A scene where Harold’s very Americanized Korean parents respond to questions—condescendingly asked them in apparently painfully bad Korean—in plain English actually is brilliant, since the Homeland Security people can’t—or won’t—understand them, claiming they must be speaking “some kind of dialect.” As a portrait of unreasoning authority in full bloom, you couldn’t ask for more. It manages to be funny and infuriating simultaneously.
The Gitmo “interrogating” business—of which there’s actually very little in the film—misfires by reducing torture to a homosexual panic joke, which isn’t funny or original. (And yet the movie brings it back later on when professional George W. Bush impersonator James Adomian shows up as an illiterately philosophical dope-smoking George W.) But what really sinks the film is that most of it plays like desperate repackagings of the first movie’s more successful set pieces—with the accent on desperate and the freshness level down to zero. In other words, it’s mostly just not funny. And however brave it might have been for the movie to attempt to tackle bigger issues within its stoner-comedy framework, in the end it’s the framework that proves to be the insurmountable obstacle. Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, graphic nudity, pervasive language and drug use.