Aug 12, 2004

Harold and Kumar go to White Castle

UPDATE:

I received this article from someone about another reading of Harold and Kumar... I see the point here, and have to rethink some of what I saw (not all of which I was comfortable with when I was watching, but I see that I was more willing to put it on the back burner, perhaps because of the lack of funny Asian American (hetero) males on the screen angle)... but at the end of the day, that's not good enough. Reminds me of Better Luck Tomorrow, in which I was perturbed about the senseless Asian on Asian violence (especially baseball bat to the head, which just brought up strong feelings about how so many hate crimes against Asian Americans involve blunt objects and our heads (shout to TD for always reminding me of that, and of those who have fallen just trying to live their lives)). I think that got to me immediately and tainted the rest of the film experience for me.

Maybe this is all about John Cho. He's the missing link.

Holla if you have thoughts on all of this...

*********************
FROM JULY 26, 2004

Yo - I just saw this flick, and I definitely recommend it. It's not that deep, but who the hell cares? It's funny, and there's enough ruminating on the -isms in the books in my library, so I want to have a laugh once in a while. If you haven't gone, fork over the $10 and support our peeps on celluloid!

New York Times
'Harold and Kumar': A Dumb Stoner Comedy for a New American Century

July 25, 2004
By A.O. SCOTT

THE plot of "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,"
succinctly summarized in the movie's title, consists of an
amusing, anarchic grab-bag of road-picture mishaps and
low-comedy gags. Many of the comic elements are predictable
(dumb stoners doing dumb, stoned things, sexual come-ons
and gross-outs of various kinds) while others are less so,
like the part when Neil Patrick Harris, playing himself,
starts licking the headrests on a Honda.

But a clever bait-and-switch early in the film signals its
sly subversive intentions. Its director is Danny Leiner,
who made "Dude, Where's My Car?," and he seems at first to
pick up more or less where that movie, or any of its
illustrious predecessors going back to "Porky's," left off.
An ex-frat boy type, with a roomy office in a New York
high-rise, is finishing up his work week. His pal,
immediately recognizable as the wilder half of a classic
buddy-movie pair, shows up proposing a fun-filled weekend
of babes, booze and bong hits. But what about that big
report due on Monday? No problem: just dump it on the
Korean guy in the far cubicle. Our hero is free to pursue
the carefree debauchery that is his birthright.

Except, of course, that the pale-skinned frat boy type is
not the hero at all. He and his friend (who happen to be
played by the screenwriters, Hayden Schlossberg and Jon
Hurwitz) are walk-on doofuses who pretty much walk out of
the movie, leaving it in the hands of that unassuming
Korean guy, Harold. He turns out to be the more uptight
half of a classic buddy-movie pair - the wilder half is his
roommate, a South Asian former pre-med named Kumar - intent
on claiming their own share of carefree debauchery. In the
process, they pretty much revolutionize the
slacker-stoner-comedy genre.

Well, perhaps that's a bit grandiose, given that what
Harold and Kumar really want to do, after a few Friday
night tokes, is satisfy a powerful case of the munchies, an
urge that leads them deep into the wilds of New Jersey and
lands them in all kinds of trouble. But the movie's
apparently simple shifts of racial and generational
emphasis - replacing the traditional white (or, in recent
variants, black) teenagers or undergraduates with
Asian-Americans in their post-college years - at once upend
the conventions of youth-oriented goofball comedy and
revitalize them. "Harold and Kumar" is as delightfully
stupid as "Friday" or "Road Trip" or "Wet Hot American
Summer," but it is also one of the few recent comedies that
persuasively, and intelligently, engage the social
realities of contemporary multicultural America.

In some ways, Mr. Leiner, Mr. Hurvitz and Mr. Schlossberg
and their stars, John Cho and Kal Penn, are broadening a
venerable tradition of ethnic humor, trafficking in
stereotypes and sending them up with equal verve. The
stoners down the hall, for instance, are a pair of
fast-talking former yeshiva boys who fire up a shofar for
some Sabbath eve toking. On a pit stop in Princeton, Harold
is dragooned into attending a meeting of an Asian-American
student group, whose painfully earnest members pepper him
with geeky questions about his investment banking job.
Harold, confronted with the specter of his own squareness
and conformity, manages to flee, only to miss out on the
group's subsequent activity - a raucous, uninhibited party,
with drugs courtesy of the geekiest kid in the bunch. (The
spectacle of good students behaving badly presents a tamer
version of the studious Asian-American teenagers gone wild
in "Better Luck Tomorrow," Justin Lin's 2001 drama of
honor-roll hoodlums, which featured Mr. Cho and which is
name-checked in "Harold and Kumar.") The filmmakers are
happy to laugh at Harold's buttoned-up careerism and
cautious deference to authority, and also at the fact that
Kumar's immigrant family, obsessed with the need for him to
get high marks and make good impressions, seems to be
composed entirely of physicians. But they also lash out -
in remarkably good humor, it must be said - at the lazy,
bigoted perceptions that bedevil Harold and Kumar in the
course of their all-night odyssey.

The prejudice that Harold and Kumar encounter - expressed
by a carload of extreme-sports headbangers and by doltish
New Jersey law enforcement officers, among others - is more
a matter of inconvenience, of moronic uncoolness, than
oppression. And in fighting back against it, Harold and
Kumar are motivated less by a sense of wounded pride or
profound injustice than by a familiar individualist
exasperation. They just want hamburgers (and sex, and
decent weed and a good time) - which is to say they want
what is theirs by birthright as young, affluent, reasonably
good-looking American consumers. Though they are
occasionally abused and insulted, they also carry with them
assumptions of social privilege, intellectual capital and
economic opportunity. They share a decent apartment in
Hoboken. Harold has a spiffy silver Honda (at least until
Doogie Howser gets a hold of it) paid for by his white
collar, Wall Street job, while Kumar dawdles on the way to
medical school, supported by his father while he indulges
in a bit of late-adolescent rebellion.

At first glance they could be poster children for early
21st-century American diversity (either that or marijuana
legalization), except that the very word would totally kill
their buzz. The impressive thing about "Harold and Kumar"
is that it takes such blithe account of the fact of
multiculturalism while having very little use for the
concept. Or really, given its proud adherence to the
standards of its genre, for any concept at all. It's not
quite that ethnic differences don't exist, or that they're
no big deal - being insulted or mocked or made to feel
invisible has a way of turning into a big deal. It's more
that belonging to a certain group has no inherent meaning
and brings with it no particular obligations of behavior.

Whether confronted with racial taunts or with group
expectations, Harold and Kumar tend to react by rolling
their eyes. This stuff just gets in the way. In college
campuses across the country, students today are carefully
taught about the dangers of demeaning, negative imagery and
about the historical marginality of nonwhite groups in a
popular culture that has seen them as villains, clowns or
nameless extras. The trailers for "Harold and Kumar" take
satiric note of this tradition, identifying Mr. Penn as
"that Indian guy from `Van Wilder' " and Mr. Cho as "that
Asian guy from `American Pie.' " The movie itself picks at
a few political scabs, as when the heroes share a jail cell
with a racially profiled African-American lawyer who
serenely schools them in the hierarchies of American social
injustice.

But the baggage of victimhood isn't really part of Harold
and Kumar's nightlong road trip. Nor is the identity crisis
that is a virtual requirement of immigrant literature. The
kinds of books that Harold and Kumar would have been
assigned to read in college, whether about Jewish-, Asian-,
Italian- or Latino-Americans, feature a conflict between
the traditions of the old country and the alluring freedoms
of the new world, between customs that offer both
confinement and continuity and choices that promise both
liberation and loss. It's a durable tradition, stretching
back to David Cahan's tales of Lower East Side striving in
the early 19th century, through the anxious early novels of
Saul Bellow and Philip Roth into the work of writers like
Gish Jen and Sandra Cisneros, and it has become a staple of
the post-Dead White Males literary curriculum. The dominant
flavor in the melting pot is bittersweet, as the comedy of
cultural collision is anchored in the pathos of yearning,
betrayal and loss. In the movies, this predicament plays
out in popular English domestic comedies like "Bend It Like
Beckham" and "East Is East" and in warm, inspirational
American dramas like "Real Women Have Curves" and "What's
Cooking?"

In most cases, those conundrums of assimilation are happily
resolved, as the young protagonists of those films - and of
the novels that tread over similar ground - find a way to
balance the demands of home and the lure of the world, to
move on without forgetting where they came from. What is
striking about "Harold and Kumar" is not that these issues
are resolved differently but that they never really come
up. The drama of hyphenation does not interest Harold and
Kumar at all. They have more important things to worry
about, like escaping from group sex with a hideous,
boil-covered tow-truck driver, fending off a rabid raccoon
and, above all, finding that elusive fast-food restaurant
where all desires can be satisfied. In the future, a term
paper will no doubt be written about the racial
connotations of the name White Castle, about the way in
which its elusiveness represents the mirage of
assimilationist aspirations and its ultimate attainment
suggests the terrible double-bind of American pluralism -
all of which is fine. But really, the thing is - dude,
they're hungry.

And why should they be any different from anybody else? Why
shouldn't they crave a sack of sliders, dabble in hip-hop
slang and sing along with bad 80's pop songs on the
tapedeck? Why shouldn't Harold have a crush on the lovely
young woman (Latina, by the way) who lives down the hall
and with whom he shares silent, longing-filled elevator
rides? The slap-happy conventions of youthful lowbrow
comedy and the easy inclusiveness of consumerism conspire
to dispel the stale clouds of identity politics.

Which is not to say that "Harold and Kumar" is altogether
unconcerned with matters of identity. Comedies of young
male recklessness situate their humor on the perennial
anxieties attached to growing up, and their celebration of
regression - all those wild weekends and crazy,
misadventurous road trips - is a way of fighting off that
anxiety. Harold and Kumar's journey is an ordeal of
embarrassment and frustration, of evaporating sexual
opportunities, humiliations and miscommunications, that
ends, in keeping with the rules of the genre, with
reassurance, satisfaction and the acceptance of
responsibility. The bullies get told off, the burgers get
eaten and that frat boy who thought he was the hero learns
that that big report is still due first thing Monday
morning.

2 comments:

burnedouteyes said...

I haven't seen it yet.

what did someone say once? "all comedy comes from suffering"... there's always a victim. Sometimes it's the comedian. Sometimes it's other unfortunate people/animals/etc.

Rage said...

i hear that - and I think that's true in a lot of ways. it's just when it's casual for a cheap laugh that it becomes more of a question of "was that necessary?"

who am i to play the morality card, though, right?