Director: Danny Leiner
Cast: John Cho, Kal Penn, Paula Garces, Christopher Meloni, Malin Ackerman and Neil Patrick Harris
Plot: Harold is a hard-working banker who is undermined at work. Kumar is from a long line of doctors, who rather get high than meet his father’s high expectations. The two of them spend their weekend, getting high, which gives them a craving for burgers at White Castle.
I have never liked road trip movies. They seem so structured and are aimed at audiences seeking easy thrills rather than becoming smart or ground-breaking comedy. I can appreciate them, but I tend to avoid them. Then how come I have so much love for the Harold and Kumar movies, especially the original. There is little difference between it and the road trip movies before it, yet there is something appealing hidden behind the drug jokes and the gross-out humour.
It opens with our two leads finishing up their week. Harold gets the job of filing several reports his boss cannot be bothered to fill out, while Kumar is tired of applying for the several universities that his father wants him to enrol in. Kumar manages to convince Harold to loosen up and smoke some weed with him, as it is Friday night. This leads to the two of them deciding to go out and get a meal from White Castle, a burger joint in Cherry Hill. Of course, being high, several distractions get in the way, especially Kumar’s constant need for more weed, and the simple trip for a snack turns into a night’s worth of mayhem, laughs and near-death.
The main reason this movie becomes better than its successors is that the leading duo are incredible. John Cho and Kal Penn have gotten bit-roles in several comedies (Cho is a recurring minor character in American Pie), but this is their first lead comedy. They perform admirably. There is a clear bond here that isn’t over-done, like Superbad or American Pie. There is some quarrelling and macho-mocking that lets us know that these two are close and that’s it, allowing the madcap adventures to get underway much faster than one would expect. It wouldn’t work, but Cho and Penn hold it together. They act so naturally, even with a simply bizarre script and story that you cannot help but crumble under their stoner charm. I also enjoyed that their respective races are never over-played, like many American movies wouldn’t be able to resist. Sure, their nationalities are acknowledged, but it feels like just another problem in their journey, rather than a recurring and over-used theme.
The other factor that makes me rate this highly is that the jokes are often very funny. Sometimes it is the simple stoner humour that does it for me: the plot is mostly explained away by the fact Kumar left his phone at home and cannot be bothered to take a short trip back to retrieve it. Then the set-pieces go from funny to outright hysterical. The racoon in the car was amusing, but by the time the movie has introduced a show-stopping turn from Neil Patrick Harris, playing a coked-up version of himself, we cannot help but shed tears of uncontrollable laughter.
Sadly, there is a sense that this film has no idea how good it is. Normally, this is a good factor for a movie, as it often trims the pompous nature off of it, yet here there is a sense that Harold and Kumar believes it is your standard stoner gross-out comedy. Certain beats of it fall flat. The ‘Battle-shits’ scene in particular is more embarrassing to watch rather than funny. Some jokes are taken just that little too far. Leiner needs to learn some balance, but he is not too far away from one of the funnier American teen comedies we have seen yet.
Final verdict: Don’t let the weak premise and genre fool you. Harold and Kumar might just surprise you with a few laughs.