Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008) / Comedy-Adventure
MPAA Rated: R for strong crude and sexual content, graphic nudity, pervasive language and drug use
Running time: 102 min. (107 min. unrated version)
Cast: Kal Penn, John Cho, Rob Corddry, Jack Conley, Roger Bart, Neil Patrick Harris, Danneel Harris, Eric Winter, Paula Garces, Jon Reep, Missi Pyle, Mark Munoz, James Adomian, Beverly D'Angelo, David Krumholtz, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Christopher Meloni
Director: Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossburg
Screenplay: John Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossburg
Review published August 1, 2008
This sequel to the surprise hit Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle takes place the day after we left them in the previous film, preparing to head to Amsterdam so that Harold (Cho, American Dreamz) can meet up with the girl in his building that he's infatuated with, Maria (Garces, Man of the House). In the airport, Kumar (Penn, Epic Movie) runs into an old fling, Vanessa (Danneel Harris, "One Tree Hill"), who is about to marry a well-to-do man he feels is a complete douche bag (Winter, "Days of Our Lives"). Things go astray when Kumar breaks out his new hi-tech bong on the airplane, which the passengers and crew mistake for a bomb, resulting in the sky marshals taking them down. The boys are promptly shipped off to Gitmo, the terrorist holding camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they are subjected to the vilest treatment imaginable (a "cock meat sandwich" is one of the highlights). As luck would have it, they make their escape, stowing away with refugees headed to the U.S., where they run from a tenacious and dimwitted Homeland Security chief, Ron Fox (Corddry, Semi-Pro). The young men plan to make their way to Texas to stop Vanessa's wedding, provided they stay a step ahead of the law -- and survive the Deep South.
The first film in what is now a series had two likeable actors in a simple story of stoners looking for some grub, unwilling to settle until they had their fix of White Castle burgers. The obstacles between their apartment and the restaurant were many, and most of their little side jaunts were inspired by some funny off-the-wall gags. Where Escape from Guantanamo Bay goes wrong is in several key areas, the worst of which happens to be that Harold and Kumar, despite being played by the same likeable actors, are not nearly as likeable in this film. Harold is more whiny and Kumar much more of a disgusting oaf, leaving us without a rooting interest in their adventure.
Another big problem is one that many sequels suffer from, an imbalance in the formula caused by the writer-directors trying to outdo everything they did in the first film. Since the first film was gross, this film goes for nauseating. Since the first film was vulgar, this film goes for obscene. Since the first film made fun of bigoted idiots, this film has to take it right to the Klan meetings. Since the first film had Neil Patrick Harris (Justice League: The New Frontier, Golden Blaze) going against the grain of his own image by being a foulmouthed prick, this film has him as a misogynistic, drug-crazed homicidal maniac. Then they inject what were once two unassuming young New Jersey men into becoming the nation's most wanted fugitives, running from a terribly crass and unfunny law enforcement character who cannot be reasoned with, and the culmination of all of their efforts results in a scene where they share a joint of coke-laced weed with none other than President Bush himself (Adomian, "The Late Show") . There's something to be said for keeping it simple, and that something is that you'll make a much better movie.
Although Danny Leiner, director of the first film, is gone, making way for the writers to get behind the camera and make something out of the characters themselves, one can't help but be disappointed that they don't seem to understand themselves just what made Harold & Kumar so funny to so many. As evidenced by this film, they must think that non-stop weed smoking, potty humor, T&A, cock & balls, and making fun of anyone and everyone is what people want to see first and foremost, with Harold and Kumar merely the conduits to increasingly ribald displays of debauchery. While it is true that the more outlandish scenes generated the biggest laughs in White Castle, they were funny because we were invested in Harold and Kumar and their plight, and there was a level of unexpectedness in their surroundings that caught us off guard. Guantanamo Bay invests little in either character, as we see them defecating and masturbating from scene one, no more funny than typical frat guys who live for nothing but pussy and beer (weed substituted here). Instead of the sublimely easygoing Harold & Kumar, Hurwitz and Schlossburg give us q Van Wilder road trip, leaving only the increasingly profane, scatological formula to try to entertain us, pushing the envelope as much as possible to predictable results. When a punch to the gut or testicles results in someone farting, you can catch a whiff of the desperation to be gross for gross's sake. That they repeat the punch line more than once makes the whole thing reek, and not just from the gaseous emissions.
The first film had been predominantly about stereotypes and cultural expectations, as well as the breaking of them. Here we had an Asian and an Indian, usually considered the students on the fast track to success -- future doctors, scientists and mathematicians. Harold and Kumar certainly exemplified that, though these characters bucked the societal and familial pressures by getting high as often as possible. This sequel paints their characters in much broader strokes. If Harold was a little more thoughtful and introverted and Kumar was a little more impulsive and gregarious, these traits are much more extreme now, as Harold almost never wants to partake in any fun, while Kumar can't stand not being able to dive headfirst into unbridled hedonism. Even more deficient are the female characters, which weren't particularly strong in the first outing, but we can chalk that up to a lack of adequate screen time. In this film, every female character appears to have been written as if they were pulled out of a "Girls Gone Wild" video. The duo's would-be girlfriends seem to exist merely waiting for them to be found so they can have someone attractive to smoke weed with, and their only relevance to the story merely a device to give our heroes a reason to travel through environs of potential comedic merit.
My guess is that there will be an audience for Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, and that audience consists primarily of those viewers who thought the first film had been hilarious because there were many scenes of weed smoking, uncontrollable sharting, and sexual perversity. I have nothing against these things when they are used in the right context, but in this sequel, they are the bread and butter of the film, rather than the seasoning. Vulgarity is funny when accentuating scenes that would be amusing even stripped of its crudeness; vulgarity is a crutch to get nervous giggles when it is the only reason for certain scenes to exist. A scene late in the film has Fox wipe his butt with the Bill of Rights; I'm pretty sure that's what Hurwitz and Schlossburg did with their original script in order to remind themselves they need to continuously push the potty factor. There isn't a rude bodily function not shown or a body part not exposed in this film.
It's not completely devoid of laughs, but there's just too much ill-will dolloped on top of the frivolity to make up for the parts in between the escalating crassness. As lovable stoners who craved miniature burgers, I could relate. As self-indulgent wedding crasher fugitives, I no longer recognized whatever I liked about them in the first place.
©2008 Vince Leo