Friday, April 25, 2008

"Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay" -- * * *

Upon reading early review after early review alluding to the politically-charged stoner sequel "Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay" as an ideal movie to get stoned before, and wondering how much funnier or more enjoyable its core audience might find it in that state, I did the unthinkable: I went stoned. Admittedly, my notes were a little less readable than usual, but the movie worked remarkably well as a marijuana-infused experience, though I'd imagine a sober viewing would prove just as satisfying (if perhaps filled with a few less giggle fits). Consistently amusing, the film is at once scatologically obsessed, celebratory of weed, and openly denigrating of post-9/11 policies and paranoia. It makes for a strange mix, but somehow, it really works on all of these base levels. Like its previous installment, "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle," the proceedings are noticeably episodic, but enjoyably crude and over-the-top ridiculous. Forgive me if my detail-retension is fuzzier than usual.

Picking up five minutes after the first film ended, the movie opens with the playing of "What a Wonderful World" abruptly interrupted by the sound of Kumar's (Kal Penn) explosive diarrhea, following his and Asian buddy Harold's (John Cho) ingestion of extreme quantities of White Castle at the end of the first film. Heading to Amsterdam, as they planned to in that movie's finale, the two encounter some problems that keep them from arriving at their destination. Aboard the plane, Kumar decides he can't quite wait till arriving in the weed capital of the world to light up, and retreats to the bathroom to utilize his self-invented smokeless bong with Harold. The door busts open, Kumar yells, "It's just a bong!" The passengers see these guys are, respectively, brown-skinned and slanty-eyed, and thus hear "bomb" and freak out. The two are confused for terrorists, and promptly put in Guantanamo Bay detention center. Narrowly avoiding being treated to "cock-meat sandwiches," our boys escape (at around the movie's 20 minute mark), and go on the lam. At this point, it lapses into the first film's set-up, functioning as a road movie, only this time, they're running from the law, namely Homeland Security chief Ron Fox (Rob Corddry). Along the way they encounter an threateningly urban basketball game, a KKK rally, a stereotypical redneck hunter, and a ground-breaking "bottomless" party, with lots of gratuitously exposed vagina.

Directed by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (who wrote the first movie), "Guantanamo" doesn't feature one moment that I think would qualify as 'subtle,' but it's frequently funny, depending on your tolerance levels for crudity and political incorrectness. Thankfully, this installment doesn't trot out the same tricks as the first film, like the "Austin Powers" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequels were accused of. The screenplay just takes a few of them (the big bag of weed and Neil Patrick Harris make return appearances), and gives them unique twists. For the most part, the movie wallows in its own absurdity (a redneck hunter licks deer blood off his knife and estimates, "born in '04"), and gets a lot of mileage out of embracing stereotypes just as much as it criticizes them; more on that later. While I appreciated dialogue like "That Abercrombie-wearing douchebag..."-- which made much of my Abercrombie-wearing crowd chuckle nervously-- it's the more bombastic, edgy touches that linger; upon hearing a loud noise, the KKK grand wizard (played by Chris Meloni, the original's "freakshow") bellows "What the nigger was that?!"

Penn and Cho do just as fine a job, and have just as much chemistry, as they had in the first outing; fans of the actors/character should certainly but pleased, but Rob Corddry all but walks away with the movie. Giving a plum role to the comedian after years spent on the daily show and spicing up otherwise lifeless movies (e.g.: "The Heartbreak Kid"), the movie makes Fox as much of a off-the-handle, paranoid, racist cartoon as possible. As a borderline-psychotic government office who at one point literally wipes his ass with the bill of rights (of course, it emerges with a large brown stain), Corddry is fearless and hilarious in virtually all his scenes, whether he's trying to tempt a black witness with grape soda, or Jewish ones with a bag of coins. The only one rivaling him for memorable moments is, however predictably, Neil Patrick Harris himself. Though regretfully Harris's role hasn't been expanded, he's still a blast to watch, and seems to love playing himself with reckless abandon. As funny as he is playing himself as a raging hetero hornball, or hallucinating a unicorn on mushrooms, his best moments are ones where he pokes fun at his ego (he wields an "NPH" branding iron).

Like the first movie, the weakest element here is an overreliance on gross-out gags that feel like a mandate rather than anything the filmmakers thought was particularly inspired. It's not that I was repulsed by said gags-- I'm kind of immune to such things at this point-- it just feels tired and doesn't bring anything new to the table. Oh yes, those diarrhea-squirt sound effects are loud. Wowsers, that cum hitting Kumar's face is thick. Ew, that exposed penis is over-the-top hairy. My audience was howling with laughter and "ewww," but I just found them boring, even stoned. Thankfully, we only get a couple of these moments.

Making a perfect double feature with "Standard Operating Procedure," "Guantanamo Bay" is one of the more slyly subversive mainstream films, let alone comedies, in recent memory. No one would make the mistake of calling this a "message" film, but there's a lot being said here; the "war on terror," racial profiling, the Bush administration's right-wing policies, the torture and humiliation of terrorist suspects, are all touched upon extensively. The movie takes a blatantly liberal standpoint, but makes its points in such funny, often crass ways, that those prone to take issue with such things might not even realize the movie is making "points." Rather than blanket Repub-bashing, the movie depicts George W. Bush as a likable, weed-loving buffoon; it's the other government officials depicted in a more despotic manner, and that's fairly telling of the directors/writers' opinions. It may be the weed and pussy jokes people remember, but it's the daring political content that makes this broad sequel stand out in our current film climate.

If there's one facet of this that falters it's that, for a comedy so unabashedly offensive and politically-incorrect, it feels the needs to cover its bases. Hurwitz and Schlossberg have Harold and Kuman encounter actual terrorists in Guantanamo Bay as a way to deflect any anti-U.S. criticisms by making sure our boys say "fuck you" to the real bad guys. While this would be fine, if a little playing-it-safe, this is problematic in suggesting that there are actual terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, a hypothesis widely-known to be false. It may not have been the filmmakers' intended implications, but it kind of bothered me.

Despite my critical nit-picking, it's hard to ignore that "Harold and Kumar," like its predecessor, is a whole lot of fun. Both films are rarely hilarious, but really enjoyable for what they are, and contain a significantly greater amount of laughs (however mild) and creativity than most low-brow comedies; for gleefully offensive stoner movies, they're remarkably charming. The rather ballsy "Guantanamo Bay" is almost endearing in its crudity and willingness to offend, and awfully hard to dislike. As for the question of if it's better or worse than it's predecessor, I'd say it's about even. The material isn't as fresh this time around, but Hurwitz and Schlosser do enough to ensure it feels like a new experience and do something radically different than the first one. It may appear questionable at the outset whether pointed political satire and dick-and-fart jokes make comfortable bedfellows, but "Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantamo Bay" successfully makes the case for it.


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