Directors: Jon Hurwitz and Hay Schlossberg
Starring: Kal Penn, John Cho, Danneel Harris, Neil Patrick Harris, Rob Corddry, Eric Winter
Running Time: 102 min.
*** (out of ****)
If you’re going to make a one joke movie that one joke better be really, really funny. Fortunately, in the case of Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, it is. When Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle was released in 2004 few expected it to make any waves and during its theatrical run it really didn’t. But thanks to DVD it found a well-deserved cult following and also garnered some critical praise for not only being a hilarious stoner comedy but also a story with real heart that addressed and challenged stereotypes. This is not that film, nor should it strive to be since a sequel’s job isn’t to duplicate the original.
Calling this a one-joke movie might be a little harsh so let’s just say it effectively tells different variations of the same joke. With the characters of Harold Lee and Kumar Patel already well established there’s nothing left for them to do but be mistaken for terrorists and escape from Guantanamo Bay prison. I’m not complaining though and neither should you because anyone who enjoyed the first film will likely love this one as well.
The plot may be paper-thin and not contain nearly as much substance as the original but I couldn’t stop laughing the whole time. The targets for humor may be cheap and easy, but so what? That doesn’t make it any less funny or sharp. There may actually be more laughs per minute in this film than the first and probably better fits the textbook definition of what a stoner comedy is supposed to be because the plot feels so disjointed (no pun intended) and discombobulated. And this is coming from someone who wasn’t high when they watched it. Plus, finally finding out the answer to the burning question of what the “P.H.” in NPH’s initials stands for is alone worth at least three stars. And no, it isn’t “Patrick Harris.”
When we last left stoners Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn), Harold had finally worked up the courage to act on his feelings for hot neighbor Maria (Paula Garces) and now the duo is on their way to Amsterdam so Harold can surprise her. At the airport they run into Kumar’s ex-girlfriend and love of his life, Vanessa (Daneel Harris) and her preppy fiancé Colton (Eric Winter) who big right-wing political ties. In a superb flashback scene we find out that it was Vanessa who introduced Kumar to marijuana in college and helped him come out of his shell (as tough as it may be to imagine a time when Kumar DIDN’T smoke pot). The guys hit a snag in their plan to go to Amsterdam when Kumar sneaks his new “smokeless” bong onto the plane and mid-flight the two are suspected as terrorists.
They’re apprehended and interrogated by the arrogant and very, very dumb government official Ron Fox (Rob Corddry) who throws them in Guantanamo Bay prison, where the main course of the day is a “cock meat sandwich,” which unfortunately for them is exactly what its name suggests it is. But they escape and realizing Colton is the only one with the political ties to get them out of this mess, embark on a wild road trip to Vanessa’s wedding in Texas, which Kumar is intent on stopping.
This road trip just represents one big opportunity for the writers to send up just about every offensive racial and ethnic stereotype imaginable. Nothing and no one is safe or off limits in this. Asian Americans, African Americans, Jews and Klu Klux Klan members are all targeted in a wide variety of sight gags that unfold throughout the story. My favorite involves a translator apparently clueless to the fact that those who speak English don’t need translation. Bravely, most of the satire revolves around post 9/11 paranoia and perhaps the film’s greatest accomplishment is that it introduces this as a topic in such a way that we don’t feel uncomfortable or guilty laughing about it. The scene where Kumar’s bong is mistaken for a bomb on the plane doesn’t play as tasteless or offensive, but flat-out hysterical. It understands that it’s okay to bring up controversial social issues so long as they’re introduced in a way that causes us to not only laugh ourselves, but also the ridiculousness of the situation.
One of the major highlights from the first film was the career resuscitating performance by Neil Patrick Harris as “Neil Patrick Harris.” It doesn’t have quite the same effect this time since when Harris appeared in the first film he had been out of the public eye for a while and could have really been playing himself for all we knew. That’s what made it so funny. Of course, now we know he’s a great comic actor who was brilliantly parodying himself, or at least the public perception of what he could have been. But the sequel makes up for this potential problem by making his antics here even more shocking and over-the-top, as he seems to go even further with less. It’s funny how since we now have a better idea what Harris’ was up to his appearance seems even more important this time around.
Another Harris, former One Tree Hill star Danneel (no relation) fares a lot better than I thought she would as the leading lady and that aforementioned flashback does a better job making us care about the relationship than most romantic comedies do their entire running length. We’re also treated to a poem so bad that I’m convinced only a genius could have written it. If anyone knows where I can find it please let me know. But if there’s a real show stealer in this its Corddry whose playing perhaps the stupidest man to ever serve the U.S. government (which if you think about it covers a lot of ground). The movie is smart in how it presents the character completely dead-set in his ways and unaware how idiotic and offensive he is. Cordrry plays him completely straight which just makes it that much funnier.
There’s a scene toward the end of the film when his character does something completely insane that defies all reasonable logic…but I believed Corddry's character would really do something that stupid. It made perfect sense. And wait until you hear the explanation of what (or rather who) inspired him to get into this line of work. Even funnier is watching the facial reactions of his put-upon subordinate (played by Roger Bart) the only person in the film who realizes just how much of a moron this guy is
George W. Bush also shows up (or at least a really good impersonator) and normally I hate stuff like that because it can come off like a Saturday Night Live outtake. I thought it was just a cheap and cartoonish until a night later when I saw an interview with the President and realized it was actually a pretty endearing portrayal, at least compared with the real thing. Bush should only hope for such a kind treatment when Oliver Stone’s controversial W is released in the fall. You could almost say they let him off easy here and was the one area of the film where they showed some restraint.
This is one of the very few times that when given the choice between watching the rated or unrated version of the DVD I’d pick the unrated every time. With these movies you don’t want a watered down version of anything. But what really make this series work are the performances of John Cho and Kal Penn. They play off each other perfectly with Harold remaining uptight as ever about society’s expectations of him, while Kumar couldn’t care less about anything not involving weed or girls. The two compliment each other perfectly and this time around we're exposed to a side of Kumar we weren't in the first film.
They’ve already announced plans for another sequel and while I love the series I wonder just how much further they can go with this. Plus, I very surprised by a development involving an important character in this film and worry how it could negatively impact the next one. Nevertheless, I’m pretty much willing to follow these guys wherever they go. Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay may be more pedestrian than the first film and lack the heart, but it’s just as funny. Fans of the original won’t be disappointed.