Friday, August 28, 2009

The paradox of Harold and Kumar

Hey kids! It's Mr. Grouchy Pants again, with his fourth straight negative post! Negativity is fun, kids!

And I'm jumping into the racial politics again. Be forewarned.

My wife has a colleague who just loves Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. This is an intelligent woman, mind you -- a person in the business of writing and vetting scripts herself. If you're a serious person, you get only a couple movies to champion this way, only a couple movies where you say "I know, it looks terrible, but trust me, it's great!" before people start to question your judgment. She allowed the sequel to Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle to enter that elite group of questionable recommendations.

So my wife and I decided to watch it on Sunday night. We were looking for a dumb comedy available OnDemand. It was either that or Rainn Wilson's The Rocker, and to decide which, we played the "which is shorter" game. Harold & Kumar had The Rocker beat by two minutes, 101 to 103.

A hater of the first movie, I should have trusted my instincts. I probably liked Guantanamo Bay slightly better than White Castle -- I'll never get over the scene in White Castle when Harold and Kumar ride on the back of a cheetah -- but the margin was very thin.

There are a million dumb comedies out there, and the two Harold & Kumar movies are hardly the worst offenders. But what seems extra bothersome about them is that they should be a huge victory for liberal sensibilities. Instead, they're a huge setback.

Here you have an extreme rarity in Hollywood: a movie franchise starring an actor of Korean descent and an actor of Indian descent. It's a casting choice that spits in the face of what should conventionally sell to audiences. In fact, actors with their demographics are so hard to find, you'd be hard-pressed to name another young actor of Indian descent other than Kal Penn. And to play the young Hikaru Sulu in this year's Star Trek, they had to use John Cho, a Korean-American, as there was no suitably well-known actor of Japanese descent around the right age. (Which, now that I think about it, may say more about the availability of actors of Japanese descent than actors of Korean descent).

Well, it's almost as though they're intentionally dumbing down the comedy with these guys, rather than matching the evident intelligence of the actors. It's an extra attempt to prove to us that these guys from stereotypically intelligent ethnic backgrounds are the furthest things from boring eggheads -- they can be just as big dipshits as white stoners.

Yeah, these are stoner comedies -- and I guess I feel pretty enlightened by the idea that stoners come in all shapes and colors. But boy are these movies stupidly written. They're knee deep in gross-out jokes and homophobia, and the plots are one inane set piece after another at breakneck speed. To give you a perfect example of all of these, the movie called Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay spends exactly five minutes of screen time in Guantanamo Bay. And four-and-a-half of those five minutes involve the two leads trying to avoid eating a "meat sandwich" from the guards -- which is exactly what you'd think it is.

This might not be racial in any traditional sense -- it could just be a bad movie that happens to star two minorities. But wait! Barack Obama says it's racial! (Sort of).

See, Kal Penn -- born Kalpen Modi, and going by that name again -- has a new job now. He works in Obama's White House Office of Public Liaison, as a liaison to the Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities. In other words, he's being made a representative of his race in that arena. Why not here?

Okay, so, Barack Obama doesn't care that his Asian-American good will ambassador is known primarily for his roles as the frat boy Taj (National Lampoon's Van Wilder, National Lampoon's Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj) and the stoner Kumar, so why should I? I'm the last person who would judge someone for enjoying a good time.

But is it too much to ask these movies to be better? At least Cho's Harold is trying to make smart decisions -- he's just the pitiable straight man caught up in Kumar's stupid shenanigans. And those shenanigans? How about Kumar bringing a bong on the plane so he can smoke in the bathroom ... on their way to Amsterdam, where marijuana is legal?

I guess what I really ask for is credibility. I love the fact that you've got an Asian-American and Indian-American stoner -- lord knows there are plenty of them out there -- but I just want them to act like human beings. They could have had great adventures getting to a hamburger joint or evading a mistaken imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay -- both, after all, are great ideas. But what resulted were ten-car-pileups of dumb jokes. And not good dumb, either.

I don't know. I had better ideas of what to say before I got sick this week and tried to complete this post over the course of a couple days.

I just wish I could applaud these movies as examples of cultural diversity, of bravery among the Hollywood green-lighters, and of intelligent filmmaking. And intelligent filmmaking doesn't have to feature intelligence, per se. Dumb can be plenty intelligent if done right.

In this case, two out of three is not good enough.

Maybe A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas, due out in 2010, will give me the Harold and Kumar I really want to see.

More likely, Kumar will burn down the Christmas tree while trying to light his bong, and someone will try to make Harold fellate Santa Claus.

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