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Cruel & Unusual: Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay

The Stop Smiling Review

(New Line)

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay
Directed by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg
(New Line)

Reviewed by Mark Asch

How is it that George W. Bush ended up labeled “the one you’d like to have a beer with”? Presumably because he’s a glib tease who goes light on the details, is intellectually nonthreatening or possibly defensive, cares little for established guidelines but sticks up for his bros absolutely (no questions asked) and still has the smirk of a guy who came up with his fraternity’s hazing rituals. I sort of imagine that the same qualities that’ve compelled Americans abroad to compulsively, grovellingly apologize on behalf of their president would compel most hosts to apologizes for their houseguest.

So when, late in Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, Homeland Security mis-targets Harold Lee (John Cho) and Kumar Patel (Kal Penn) parachute into the Crawford ranch in sort of a reverse deus ex machina, and Dubs (James Adomian) sparks a fattie for them and starts talking about hand jobs, I had to wonder. Is it daring to portray Bush as overgrown frat boy drifting through a haze of marijuana smoke — or is it a tip-off that writer-directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg actually have a fair bit in common with Bush’s cocky disinterest in seriousness and sensitivity?

Probably the latter, and not just because the title is a bait-and-switch, with the Gitmo set in place just long enough for a prison-bitch bit. (The sheer horror of the prospect of having a dick in one’s mouth is apparently the one joke everyone feels comfortable with as a stand-in for every degradation — reported, imagined, unimaginable — suffered in open-ended, extralegal, and perhaps baseless confinement.) Our heroes, functional stoners and first-generation Americans of Korean and Indian extraction respectively, end up there after a bong-bomb mix-up en route to Amsterdam (itself the sequel bait dangled to audiences at the conclusion of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, during the last presidential election year), and a bit of fast-track profiling by Rob Corddry’s bit-chomping DHS deputy assistant underwhatever Ron Fox: “North Korea and Al Quaeda, working together.”

Sprung from their cage and rafted back to the motherland, Harold and Kumar are back on the solid ground of the road-trip movie — or rather an odyssey, as the journey’s ultimate goal is to prevent the marriage of Kumar’s ex as much as to throw themselves on the political connections of her toothy Young Republican fiancé. There’s even a Cyclops — an inbred backwood baby, part of a cast of hicks, Klansmen, homeboys and hookers the duo meet as they more or less retrace Borat’s route through the heartland.

The politics of Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, like those of Borat, are liberal, inasmuch as all racially insensitive or otherwise politically incorrect dialogue comes from the mouths of clowns and assholes. (Though the largely unscripted Borat at least sought out actual clowns and assholes.) This is mostly Corddry’s gig, as he tracks Harold and Kumar’s herbalicious scent. But here’s the thing about Harold & Kumar’s direct address of locker-(or board-)room-banter stereotypes. When Fox interviews an African-American witness, jumps to the conclusion that the witness is a criminal and tries to pry the truth from him with the promise of off-brand grape soda, is the joke A) ha ha, black people really like grape soda, or B) ha ha, this jerk is relying on offensive and outdated stereotypes about black people and grape soda? Is there really much of a difference?

I’d say no, and that Hurwitz and Sclossberg’s frattish sensibility is inherently conservative, even when it’s lip-servicing progressive sensibilities (by writing Corddry’s caricature of American idiocy so broadly that it fails as satire, the same way that the guards in Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross’s The Road to Guantanamo failed as docudrama). And that’s without even looking over the anonymous female flesh displayed here at practically contractual intervals. Harold and Kumar attend a “bottomless party,” the conditions of which are established by a pan down a girl’s shirt and onto her landing strip. Yep, she’s really not wearing anything over her vagina. But when Harold and Kumar drop trou, don’t expect their nakedness to be as scrupulously confirmed. (Upwards of a dozen ladyparts are fully visible in the scene, more or less as set dressing; the sole dick is played for a dick joke.) Writing about Harold and Kumar in last Sunday’s New York Times, Dennis Lim quoted Schlossberg’s assessment of Barack Obama as, like Harold and Kumar, a hopeful harbinger of a post-racial society. But what, really, is so progressive about jockish games of yeah-dude-I-just-went-there — especially as played by guys whose views of women are stuck in high school gym class? I bet Schlossberg and Hurwitz are the kind of Obama boys who routinely refer to Hillary Clinton as a cunt.

 

 

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