'Harold and Kumar' push the limits of multiculturalism
Ethnicity is a detail, not the punch line, in the stoner comedies.
By Mark Olsen
Special to The Times
April 23, 2008
It was hardly an auspicious start. In 2004's "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle," two friends, one Korean American, the other Indian American, smoke a lot of pot and decide they want burgers from their favorite fast-food joint. So begins a nightlong, drug-fueled, often surreal odyssey that includes some unsavory high jinks with coeds, a rabid raccoon and a whacked-out cameo from a hopped-up Neil Patrick Harris.
At the time, many wrote off the low-budget movie as just another stoner comedy. But to others, the characters of Harold and Kumar -- weed-smoking and wisecracking but very much of color -- right away read as something different. Somehow, in featuring the misadventures of two regular guys who just happened to not be white, the pair pushed the limits of multiculturalism in contemporary cinema, bringing film closer to speed with changes that seemed to have already taken hold in the world of casting for television.
On its initial release, the film was a disappointment, bringing in just $18 million at the box office, but a steady-building popularity on DVD eventually made a sequel a reality. With one of the most outrageous movie titles in recent memory, "Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay" hits theaters Friday.
Both films -- written by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, who also direct as a team this time out -- quite offhandedly make two characters with strong ethnic cultural identities into the leads, still an unusual move for a mainstream Hollywood movie. For all the talk of the remarkable schlubbiness of the leading men coming off the Apatow conveyor belt, they are still middle-class white guys.
"The theme in these movies is that Harold and Kumar are sort of beyond race," said Schlossberg. "They don't really care that much about their own identities; it's the people around them that sort of haven't gotten it yet."
The new film continues the rollicking ridiculousness of the first, picking up right where "White Castle" left off, as Harold and Kumar prepare to fly to Amsterdam. A series of mishaps -- starting with racial profiling at airport security and a misunderstanding between the words "bong" and "bomb" -- land the pair in the hands of Homeland Security, and soon enough they are kitted out in Gitmo's notorious orange jumpsuits. They are incarcerated for only a few minutes of screen time, though, before busting out of prison and floating back to Miami with a boatload of refugees, setting off on a trek across the American South that peaks when the duo gets high with President George W. Bush in Texas.
According to Hurwitz and Schlossberg, the audience that loved "White Castle" for its pot humor, potty jokes and anything-can-happen sense of wild reinvention is not shocked by the cultural difference of the leads.
"I feel like Hollywood is a little behind the curve usually in terms of what America is ready to accept from a cultural standpoint," said Hurwitz. "Filmgoers are a bit savvier than they are given credit for."
The roles have been a boost for the careers and visibility of John Cho, who plays Harold, and Kal Penn, who plays Kumar. Penn subsequently played the lead in "The Namesake," appeared on "24" and is now a regular on the television series "House." Cho -- previously known for "American Pie" -- has been cast in a number of television pilots and landed the part of Sulu in J.J. Abrams' upcoming reinvention of "Star Trek."
Both actors have always been particularly sensitive to the issues of racial representation. It goes back to even before they were doing the audition rounds earlier in their careers, to memories from childhood. Penn, 31 and from New Jersey, vividly recalled how the release of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," with a scene of an Indian feast, had an immediate effect.
"I remember going to school after the weekend that movie came out and no one wanted to sit next to me at lunch," said Penn. "They completely believed my peanut butter and jelly sandwich certainly had to contain monkey brains. Nobody would sit next to me for a week. Even though I was a kid, that was the first time I realized how seeing something in a film can really affect how you look at things."
It's a theme that Penn takes quite seriously. He's actually, believe it or not, currently a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching courses in "Images of Asian Americans in the Media" and "Contemporary American Teen Films."
Cho, 35 and raised in Los Angeles, recalled his own disappointment at the Long Duk Dong character in "Sixteen Candles" and acknowledged that there can be concerns about the broader cultural meanings a specific role may have.
"It is a bit of a burden just thinking about it all the time," he said. "The point is to have fun in this job, and it makes it a little trickier sometimes. I do feel some amount of pressure, and with every job I've tried to steer clear of things that I feel would embarrass me as an Asian American.
"While I'm willing to make a fool of myself in a role, I certainly don't want to put on buckteeth and a cone-shaped hat and talk with an accent."
Hurwitz and Schlossberg initially created the characters of Harold and Kumar as friends/sidekicks for an earlier script. They decided to turn them into lead roles as a way to reflect the diverse group of friends they grew up with in New Jersey, many of whom were American-born to immigrant parents and as entrenched in American culture as were the writers.
"With both films, race is and isn't important," explained Schlossberg. "We were very aware that our protagonists were a Korean American and an Asian American, but on the other hand, it's totally random. Everybody always asks why did we do this, and the movies themselves don't always answer the question. We bring up race, and it's clearly there, but we try not to make it too much about it."
The seemingly throwaway attitude toward the characters' cultural background suits Penn just fine.
"The ethnicity flavors the role, but who they are goes way beyond ethnicity," said Penn. "And it seems to me we are moving away from just the ethnocentric side characters. I think that's evidenced in shows like 'Lost,' 'Grey's Anatomy,' 'House,' 'The Office.'
"It's probably too soon to say, but hopefully you're seeing a shift where the real America is actually being reflected in all its diversity. I find it really refreshing and more interesting to watch when things are more fleshed out."
Where "White Castle" points toward such issues to largely leave them alone, in "Guantanamo Bay," it is the ethnicity of Harold and Kumar that sets the film's chain of events in motion, with an added undercurrent of political upheaval throughout the film. An overzealous Homeland Security officer (Rob Corddry) believes that the two provide proof that North Korea and Al Qaeda are working together. The scene with President Bush (played by impersonator James Adomian) shows him as petulant and immature, not to mention drinking and using drugs.
"The goal for us is to make the audience laugh," said Hurwitz, backing away somewhat from the film's political subtext and obvious moral outrage.
"When it really comes down to it, our priority at all times is to have a crazy, bonkers, out-there, outrageous, un-PC, insane comedy so you and your friends can go to the theater and have an incredible time. There's nothing that can ruin that kind of movie more than being preachy or having a strong political message. So for us, this film brings up what's going on and helps us all laugh at it. It's a form of therapy."
The challenge at times can be how to turn a solemn topic into a laughing matter.
"Guantanamo Bay isn't just a serious subject, it's an extremely serious subject," said Schlossberg. "And when you have things that are that heavy, I think it's just a natural human response to make something light about it."
Added Hurwitz, "A lot of times the things you're a little afraid to joke about are the things that get the biggest reaction."