Title: Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay
Genre: Adventure, Comedy
Director: Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg
Screenwriters: Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg
Starring: John Cho, Kal Penn, Neil Patrick Harr
I’ve never seen an audience respond to a movie the way this Austin premiere crowd went crazy for Neil Patrick Harris. When his name appeared in the opening titles — “Neil Patrick Harris as ‘Neil Patrick Harris'” — they cheered. When he made his first appearance, driving a car in the Texas backwoods, they clapped and hollered. And when he died, in a way I don’t dare reveal, they went apoplectic. Let’s hear it for the unlikeliest of Generation-Y heroes.
For those who may be confused, Harris played himself in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, in a small role just this side of a cameo. His performance was hilariously self-deprecating, making “Neil Patrick Harris” into a randy bastard, and leading to one of the decade’s greatest quotations: “What’s the deal with Neil Patrick Harris? Why is he so horny?” Harris surprised everyone by turning out to be the rare “washed-up” actor to exhibit some wisdom about his career and pop culture status. And he has been rewarded with the adoration of a new army of fans, most of whom know only enough about Doogie Howser, M.D. to realize that it merits derision.
He’s is back with a vengeance in Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, and the character’s popularity allows writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (who also directed the sequel) to turn the already meta joke into a bizarre self-referential mobius strip. Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) run into Neil Patrick Harris after being mistaken for terrorists on an airplane, getting thrown in Guantanamo by hilariously incompetent government suits, and ditching the infamous island prison with a bunch of Cuban illegals on a raft. They’re trying to make it to Texas in the hopes that Kumar’s ex-girlfriend’s well-connected fiancé can clear their names.
The first film hooked me with its mixture of earnest sweetness (I found the enduring friendship between the title characters genuinely touching) and its ability to build jokes around its manipulation and demolishing stereotypes. On the other hand, I didn’t much care for the gross-out gags or the stoner humor. The sequel, too, leans heavily on graphic and/or unpleasant money shots, and there it threatened to lose me; it’s hard, these days, to come up with something genuinely shocking, and a penis won’t do.
Thankfully, the movie is no less eager than its predecessor to use pointed political incorrectness to poke fun at our prejudices. It has a formula for this: Harold and Kumar encounter a character with some readily identifiable characteristic (hick; large southern black man; Klansman) and make the inevitable assumptions only to be proven hilariously wrong. There are several iterations of this, and because the movie is clever and knows how to push our buttons, the formula doesn’t tire — though it may by the end of a second sequel.
The franchise continues to coast on the charm of its stars, Kal Penn in particular. In the past, I’ve said that Penn reminds me of a young Steve Martin, but I realize now that the though the two have similarly prodigious comic timing, the comparison’s not terribly apt; while Martin has tended to specialize in straight men, Penn here creates one of modern cinema’s most lovable rogues. Escape from Guantanamo Bay smartly supplements Penn and Cho’s talents with a broad supporting cast that makes this more of an ensemble piece than the first film; standouts include Rob Corddry as the moron government agent and Ed Helms as a clueless interpreter.
This isn’t a masterpiece, and a screening of Steve Conrad’s brilliant The Promotion the next day laid bare Harold & Kumar‘s weaknesses and inconsistencies. But stoner comedies this comparatively ambitious and intelligent are hard to come by. Kumar got it right when, before their latest adventure begins, he told Harold that “this’ll be just like Eurotrip, only it’s not gonna suck.”