Sunday, September 07, 2008

Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay

I asked my youngest son whether I should see Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008). His answer was clear: I shouldn't see the film. He said he didn't even want to think about the possibility that I might see it and didn't want to know if I did.

This is an intermittently amusing, occasionally hilarious film. In this sequel to Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), our multicultural stoner heroes are recovering from an epic feast of hamburgers. They decide to take a trip to Amsterdam so that Harold can hook up with a girlfriend whose acquaintance he made at the end of the first film. Midway across the Atlantic Ocean, Kumar is spied trying to light a homemade bong by an old woman already convinced he and his friend are terrorists. Kumar and Harold are arrested and accused of bring terrorists who are trying to blow up the plane. They are sent to Guantanamo Bay, which the film depicts as one of the veritable pits of hell. The prison guards are glowering, towering buffoons who expect inmates to service them with oral sex on command. Harold and Kumar manage to escape soon after they arrive, and the remainder of the picture consists of a series of sometimes funny sketches about their efforts to get to Texas, where Kumar's former girlfriend is about to marry. He wants to prevent the wedding and at the same time prove that he and Harold are not terrorists.

One of the funniest parts of the movie involves a drive through Alabama, which neither Harold nor Kumar has ever visited. Not surprisingly, this part of the film makes comedy out of stereotypes about Southerners. First Harold and Kumar drive into the middle of a group of large hulking African American men playing basketball. When the men approach with threatening looks on their faces, Harold and Kumar assume they're going to be beaten up or worse. They jump out of their car and run away. Instead, we learn, the men were planned to ask Harold and Kumar if they could be of assistance. In another scene, they are surprised by the hospitality and friendliness of a young Southern couple that takes them in. The film seems to be suggesting that stereotypes about Southern rednecks are wrong. Yet it turns out that the couple is the incarnation of those stereotypes--they are a married brother and sister. The freakish product of their union is locked in the basement—a one-eyed monster. Later Harold and Kumar find themselves at a Ku Klux Klan meeting, listening to Klansmen trade stories about how they have mistreated minorities.

In the penultimate scene of the film, after Harold and Kumar have been recaptured by Homeland Security agents and sent on their way back to Guantanamo Bay, they overpower their guards and parachute out of the plane. They fall through the roof of a house in Plano, Texas, that happens to belong to President George W. Bush. The boys become friends with Bush--they toke up with him in his garage and trade stories about their difficult parents. Bush grants them a full pardon and also makes it possible for Kumar to get to his girlfriend's wedding in time to stop the proceedings.

The humor in this film is often gross but also broad and relatively gentle. The film exploits every opportunity it can find for comedy, but unfortunately this isn't often enough. Much of the film is just plain silly, aimed at a college-age audience that doesn't have especially high standards for humor. In particular the film doesn't exploit the potential for satire aimed at racial and ethnic stereotypes. After all, Harold is Korean and Kumar is Indian. There are only a few moments of such satire. In one, an African-American airport security guard mistakes Kumar for a potential terrorist because of his dark skin. Maybe this is supposed to be ethnic profiling in reverse.

Despite the title, there is not much political satire either. George Bush comes off as buffoonish but sympathetic. The film aims its most biting satire at the Homeland Security agents who trail Harold and Kumar. The vice-director of the Homeland Security agents is an ignorant clown who is constantly jumping to illogical conclusions even when the obvious truth stares him in the face. One example comes when Harold's parents speak to him in very clear English: he thinks he's hearing Korean. Yet the broad slapstick nature of this satire strips it of any real power or impact. The film is serious about its humor, but not so serious about any political message.

So, despite my son's warnings, I saw Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. And I think I recognized the scenes he was worried about.

1 comment:

ResidueOfDesign said...

The original Harold & Kumar is really good. I enjoyed it, and I've never touched any of the substances they consume/abuse.