Harold & Kumar's camp x-ray lacks comic vision
By Stephen Hunter
April 25, 2008
The issue isn't whether Harold and Kumar escape Guantanamo but whether the rest of us escape "Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay."
It's not looking good.
A thin, almost listless reiteration of some of the magical bits and grace notes that "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" captured a few years back, the movie is strictly running on dumpy. Not even Doogie Howser can bring much life to it, and in fact Neil Patrick Harris kills it dead by trying too hard to be "funny" instead of just grooving as Neil Patrick Harris.
It's a shame. John Cho, who plays mild, polite Harold Lee and Kal Penn, as the more manic and disheveled Kumar Patel, had vivid repartee in the original. They seem to have a lot to offer American comedy: As second-generation Americans, their take on the United States is definitely from outside the usual dichotomies, giving them license to poke fun at both sides. They have the weird distance that the second gen confers. Second-genners have only theoretical commitment to the old country and don't remember its hardships (like their more grateful parents) so they feel no axiomatic indebtedness to the new place. At the same time, they partake eagerly of the pleasures and corruptions of pop culture, and yet they are exiled from it, aware of the racist doubt their presence frequently conjures among people of different colors. How do such guys ever fit in? It's a subject worthy of a V.S. Naipaul or a Salman Rushdie. Conrad could have taken a grand swing at it, and Updike already has. Writer-directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg ain't in that league. They're much more comfortable with penis jokes.
The setup is primitive. The two guys, college students fraught with the usual sexual frustration, are taking off for Amsterdam, where they mean to sample that city's reputation for licentiousness. Alas, the pot-centric Kumar has brought a bong aboard the plane -- an electric one, with wires and tubes. Funny image: An old lady looks at him with his beyond-the-Levant features and immediately sees a laughing terrorist joyfully flying airplanes into buildings and making deep, throaty explosion noises. It probably happens to any man of dark complexion on any plane in America these days. But when the bong is discovered -- unwisely and perhaps too conveniently, Kumar tries to light up in the john -- two husky air marshals pound him to the ground, and the next thing you know, goodbye world, hello Guantanamo.
Much has been written about Camp X-Ray, and it certainly doesn't need me to defend it, but "Harold & Kumar's" evocation of it left me shocked, shocked. Whatever its thousands of critics say, none of them has ever suggested it's a backwoods predatory homosexual prison farm with no plumbing. The one thing you can be sure the U.S. government knows a lot about is plumbing! So the movie's caricature isn't funny, it's simply stupid. The joke would have been better if X-Ray had turned out to be like a Howard Johnson's, not like the 1932 Yoknapatawpha town lockup. By thinly imagined contrivances, the two guys escape and soon have managed to get back to America for a coast-to-coast trip on the lam. The problem is, it isn't coast to coast, it's just across a few southern states from Florida to Texas, where Kumar's ex-girlfriend's WASPy fiance seems to hold the key to get them out of legal troubles. But the region traversed sets up most of the humor, and the targets of derision are ever so unexciting: the usual southern rednecks, Klansmen and other inbred lowlife swamp types. What courage! How outrageous! These people seem to think it's funny to conjure an America populated by Larry the Cable Guys when everyone knows we live in a land of Homer Simpsons!
The level of comic invention is likewise low. Rob Corddry plays a Homeland Security agent who becomes their Inspector Javert, but he's more like Inspector Clouseau. His performance is the one-note variety, and the note is stupidity. He gets tiresome soon. Not even Doogie is much help. The fact that Harold and Kumar loved the teenage doctor on the cheesy comedy was a great device in "White Castle," and when Harris himself showed up as a pot-swilling, gal-dogging creep, one of the most sublimely surrealistic moments in that year's movies also showed up. But in this one, Harris has no place to go except the tired route of same-old same-old, and the gimmick has lost its magic. I think the filmmakers would have done better to have conned a newer, fresher Grade-B, it's-so-over celeb into the fold. Wasn't Scott Baio available?
Finally, as was so the last time, the movie represents a kind of cynical marketing ploy. Its humor level is definitely eighth-grade, with bathrooms, sexual organs, nudity and various issues of disgust featured prominently, but it's rated R, so that only those 17 and over can attend legally. In other words, it's an open invitation to the under-17s to slide into it in the multiplexes after straight-facedly buying a ticket to "Nim's Island." Parents probably can't do a thing about it, so get ready for the end of the world.