Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Pot and Politics

Let me tell you a secret... I started this review a MONTH ago. It totally got lost in the shuffle of life, and I apologize to the movie profusely. It deserves better, especially since it was obliterated by the critics. I wanted to stand up for it, and gosh darn it, I still will, with everything I have in my critical arsenal.

I saw Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay two days after I saw Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Well, Forgetting Sarah Marshall made me forget something, all right - what it was like for a movie to make me laugh. Luckily, Harold & Kumar made me remember how wonderful it is. It reminded me that comedies are supposed to be funny. Laughing hasn't felt that good in a long time.

So, do you know what time it is? It's officially "freedom o'clock," as Ron Fox might put it, and I'm here to defend the honor of Harold and Kumar. Most critics have slammed the movie, but I have a right to my opinion, too. That's what freedom o'clock means, after all. And my opinion is that those critics are wrong. Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay is a comedic triumph. It's just as great as the original, and maybe even a little better, which is a huge accomplishment. And, it caters to the genuine fans. We honestly couldn't ask for a better sequel. The raucously happy packed theater I was in, full of satisfied filmgoers and rapturous Harold and Kumar enthusiasts, confirmed it. Oh, and just a tip...if you haven't seen it yet, watch until the credits are over. It's so worth it.

The film picks up immediately where the first one left off, like seconds later. I love that. Harold and Kumar are back from White Castle and about to get on a plane to Amsterdam. Their reason for going is to follow Harold's love interest Maria there (in a non-creepy way) - it's just an added bonus that the destination happens to be Amsterdam, the Stoner's Mecca. Once on the plane, after Kumar raises hell about a random security check, by a black guy who Kumar says isn't "even brown," Kumar decides he can't wait until they reach pot sanctuary. He needs to get high now. Harold is outraged when Kumar produces a smokeless bong that he invented. Naturally, the bong is quite elaborate looking with lots of wiring, so someone catches a glimpse, thinks it's a bomb, and accuses them of being terrorists. They are then taken into custody, and it gets blown way out of proportion into a federal crisis. It's just a little weed, but the suits, led by Ron Fox (Rob Corddry), the most ignorant and offensively racist guy ever, automatically lump them in a category with the likes of Osama Bin Laden, and fling them into Guantanamo Bay faster than you can say "War on Terror." Harold and Kumar are perceived as the "teaming up of North Korea and Al-Qaeda," which is hilarious, because they couldn't be more harmless.

Harold and Kumar aren't in Guantanamo Bay very long. Most of the film surrounds their flight from the law, which turns into an all-out manhunt. Oh, and at the airport, Harold and Kumar ran into Kumar's ex, Vanessa, and her fiancé Colton, a friend of Harold's that Kumar dislikes because a) he thinks he's a douche, and b) he's pissed to see this stiff with his girl, who we later learn was the love of Kumar's life. Colton works for the government and tells the guys to let him know if they ever need anything. So, once they escape from Guantanamo and hitch a ride to Miami on a homemade raft with some illegal immigrants, they have to get to Colton so he can clear them of the bogus terrorist charges. Harold sees this as the only logical solution, but Kumar is reluctant and stubborn because he doesn't want to kiss Colton's ass. Also, there's the minor problem that Colton and Vanessa are getting married in a matter of days, so if Harold and Kumar want his help, they have to show up at the family ranch in Texas where the wedding is being held. Kumar is more concerned with sabotaging the wedding than their impending federal doom, which creates a rift between the best friends as Harold gets more and more frustrated with Kumar's selfishness.

Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, writers of the first Harold & Kumar film, have now turned writer-directors, and they do a damn good job. They're smart to stay true to the formula of the first movie. While most of the scenarios in the sequel feel familiar, they never feel stale. Hurwitz and Schlossberg have found a magnificent way of reinventing the jokes instead of just rehashing them. Like the original, Guantanamo is a road flick, a buddy comedy, and, naturally, a stellar example of the stoner genre.

Check out the traveling similarities in the road movie mold:
  • Original: Harold and Kumar need to get to White Castle for some tasty sliders; Sequel: Harold and Kumar need to get to Texas to clear up their felonies

  • Original: Harold and Kumar meet up with a helpful redneck named Freakshow and his hot wife, and Freakshow wants to have a foursome; Sequel: Harold and Kumar meet up with a helpful redneck named Raymus, his wife, and their in-bred cyclops-child

  • Original: Harold and Kumar stumble upon an Asian party at Princeton; Sequel: Harold and Kumar stumble into a bottom-less party in Miami (as in, exposed vaginas - some penises, but as far as I can remember, we only see vaginas and maybe one penis - this didn't offend me at all, though)

  • Original: Harold and Kumar have run-ins with a raccoon and a cheetah; Sequel: Harold and Kumar have a run-in with the KKK (hmm... maybe those don't exactly match up, but there's something poetic about it if you think about it)
Anyway, you get what I mean. There are also lots of references and in-jokes sure to please fans ("extreme," anyone?). Hey, even the bag of weed is back. If you're a true fan, that means something to you. Oh, and you didn't think I'd forget the best of all, did you? Three letters: N...P...H... The one, the only, Neil Patrick Harris. He's an integral part of Harold and Kumar's road trip in both films, but I was over the moon (as no doubt all of the other H&K devotees were) to discover that we get a whole lot more of NPH per buck this time around. He is EPIC in this film. There's so much to treasure about his performance. I adored him as Doogie Howser, and I love him even more now. He rocks the screen every time he's on it. In Guantanamo, we learn more about Neil Patrick Harris, like his lost love Tashonda. That's pretty much as deep as he gets, and as deep as we want him. His other escapades in the sequel include driving while ingesting massive quantities of shrooms, hallucinating a unicorn that will show him the path of enlightenment, and taking the boys to a whorehorse, where he proclaims, à la Ricky Ricardo, "Pooo-sy, I'm home!" Some other NPH gems include: "Gentlemen, start your engines! It's gonna be a bumpy fuckin' ride.", "I hope you're ready for me, Tits. Because I'm going to rock out with my cock out, and you're going to jam out with your clam out. It's going to be magical. ", and, in response to Ron Fox's assertion that it's an honor to meet him, "Yeah, I would imagine so." It certainly is an honor to meet this marvelous persona of his. I can't get enough of my NPH. He's brilliant.

The acting is pretty awesome. Rob Corddry, another Daily Show product (Steve Carrell ring a bell?), makes a huge, hilarious splash in what I think is his first major film role. He practically steals the show as the bigoted idiot Ron Fox. Roger Bart is great as the anti-Ron Fox. Plus, I have a soft spot for him because of his work as the uber-creepy pharmacist George on Desperate Housewives. Eric Winter as Colton is appropriately jackass-y and gets a memorable one-liner or two himself. David Krumholtz and Eddie Kaye Thomas have a couple great scenes and amusingly reprise their characters from the first movie, Goldstein and Rosenberg, Roldy and Kumar non-offensively Jewish buddies.

Danneel Harris as Kumar's love interest Vanessa is outstanding. Paula Garces, though not in it as much, does a fantastic job with Roldy's love interest Maria. It takes special ladies to hold their own against the formidable presence of the dynamic duo, John Cho and Kal Penn, but these ladies do it admirably. James Adomian plays George W., a role he has apparently been playing everywhere and anywhere for awhile now, most prolifically on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson (seems like a tragic waste of talent). At first, I wasn't sure what to think of him, because he doesn't look exactly like the moron. But later, when I discovered that he was only 28 in real life, I was blown away by the make-up and resemblance. It grows on you throughout the movie, too. His depiction and voice and all that is spot-on perfection. Oh, and as a bonus, The Office's regular stitch-and-a-half, Ed Helms, plays an interpreter in one fabulous scene with the duo's parents in which he condescends to Mr. and Mrs. Lee by speaking Korean and then responding to their blatantly non-accented English with confusion at the dialect they're using.

Still, the stars have been, are, and always will be John Cho and Kal Penn. They're insanely talented, they're deft comedians in a league of their own, and they can also do serious and sentimental. They're total packages. Cho and Penn have the most magnificent chemistry. It's amazing to watch. They make these potentially annoying characters totally lovable and memorable. Who doesn't want to hang out with them? Their friendship is the heart and soul of movies that don't even require a heart and soul, just once again proving that these films are head and shoulders above most comedies. Despite the relationships between Kumar and Vanessa (which is really sweet) and Harold and Maria, the only relationship that matters it the bromance between Harold and Kumar. It's heartwarming and poignant. I love those guys. I can't wait for the third film. Anyway, the following poem, that Kumar recites to Vanessa, could just as well apply to Harold:

"The Square Root of 3" by Kumar Patel

"I fear that I will always be
A lonely number like root three
A three is all that's good and right,
Why must my three keep out of sight
Beneath a vicious square root sign,
I wish instead I were a nine
For nine could thwart this evil trick,
with just some quick arithmetic
I know I'll never see the sun, as 1.7321
Such is my reality, a sad irrationality
When hark! What is this I see,
Another square root of a three
Has quietly come waltzing by
Together now we multiply
To form a number we prefer,
Rejoicing as an integer
We break free from our mortal bonds
And with a wave of magic wands
Our square root signs become unglued
And love for me has been renewed."

Genius, huh? I know. I know.

So, what I DON'T know is what the grouchy critics expected from Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. If they expected nothing more than just a simple, base comedy, they should have been ecstatic. In a year already overpopulated with duds like Meet the Spartans, Fool's Good, and so many more that are just too inconsequential to name, Harold & Kumar is the real gold. Time has passed since I saw it, but it's still the funniest movie of 2008, and it'll be hard to dethrone. It has absolutely held up in my month-plus away from it. One of my favorites lines remains Kumar's outraged assertion, "Fuck you, donuts are awesome!"

But still, even if you're just expecting some laughs, which it delivers in spades, this movie gives you so much more. For starters, how about the masterful deconstruction and biting critique of contemporary macho posturing? The use of a song entitled "My Dick" is positively inspired, and I love how Harold and Kumar play up the testosterone angle when deep down, they're just sweet little bunnies. And Neil Patrick Harris, an openly gay man, portrays the most misogynistic pig of all time and has so much fun with it. And hey, even NPH has his kryptonite, Tashonda with the Hershey kiss nipples.

You want more proof of this movie's excellence and brilliance? Okay, here you go: it's a rare SMART comedy. It continues the blistering social commentary of the original by playing with racial stereotypes and turning the spotlight on the so-called normal white majority for a change. Then, it ups the ante by adding politics to the scathing mix and waging its own war on the War on Terror and post-9/11 paranoia with intelligent, farcical but at the same time totally realistic and believable, and always funny satire. Really, what more could a movie-watcher want?

The state of our nation is epitomized by Corrdry's Ron Fox, who says stuff like, "Oh, yeah. Yeah, I'm sorry. You want rights now. You want freedoms. Right now. Is it time? Is it freedom o'clock?" and literally wipes his ass with the 5th amendment. Here's a wonderful exchange between Fox and Dr. Beecher (the only sensible person in this federal operation - a pissed-off nerd who's tired of being bullied by jerks like Fox and tells him in a very right-on moment, " It's people like you that make the world think that Americans are stupid! I'm not stupid! I'm not gonna take this shit anymore!"):

Ron Fox: "Do you have a problem with the way I run the show, Beecher?"
Dr. Beecher: "I'm just saying I looked through the files on Harold Lee and Kumar Patel. They were both born and raised in New Jersey. Other than a couple of traffic tickets, they're clean."
Ron Fox: "Oh, right! That's why they just broke out of prison!"
Dr. Beecher: "It's not even clear that they should've been there in the first place!"
Ron Fox: [growing flustered] "Shouldn't have... [walks over to desk and picks up a picture of a little girl] You see this cute little white girl, Beecher?"
Dr. Beecher: "Yeah."
Ron Fox: "Do you want her to get raped and murdered?"
Dr. Beecher: "Of course not."
Ron Fox: "You sure? 'Cause this is America. Do you want to rape America?"
Dr. Beecher: "No."
Ron Fox: "Then stop fucking with me!" [throws picture against wall]

Think that's exaggerated? I bet conversations like that go on every day in our hallowed halls of justice and equality. At the end of the movie, the boys show up at the ranch of George W. Bush (that's where the wedding is taking place, natch). They meet the president (I refuse to capitalize it in reference to THAT person), and he invites them to smoke up with him. Bush is one of the simplest (obviously) and inexplicably wisest people in the movie, which is an interesting, brilliant choice. He spouts philosophy in his hazy stupor that actually makes sense. Harold tells him, "After all the shit we've been through, I don't... I don't know if we can trust our government anymore." Dubya responds, "Trust the government? Heck, I'm in the government and I don't even trust it. You don't have to believe in your government to be a good American. You just have to believe in your country." And when he says that, in this movie, I actually believe it. Unlike so many other movies, Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay finds optimism and hope in our pitiful national situation. Now THAT puts the "beautiful" in "America the Beautiful."

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

1 comment:

Chris Gorski said...

What a concise, poetic and compelling review. Lisa, you deserve nothing less than an official NPH brand for your devotion to the under sung genius that is Harold and Kumar. Oh, and by the way Lis, nice pubes ;)