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Two unheralded Asian actors headline a surprisingly smart stoner comedy

It's rare to sit down at a Hollywood movie of any kind and enjoy a heady blast of refreshingly rude, irreverent attitude. Actually, with Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, a new comedy from Danny Leiner, it would be more accurate to call it a heady blast of acrid cannabis smoke. Harold and Kumar is nothing, really, just a shaggy dog story about two stoners with the munchies, but it's somehow the most liberating mainstream movie I've seen this year this side of Fahrenheit 9/11.

Setting the tone early is a scene in which one of the two title characters is shown wearing a T-shirt that bears a Whoopi-esque slogan: "I [heart] BUSH. The pussy, not the president." And to raise the ante, he's sucking on a bong and laughing at an anti-drug commercial on television. Although Republicans could certainly point to this scene as evidence of Hollywood's depraved, immoral liberalism, I somehow doubt they will, for the film is ultimately too much ragged but righteous fun for there to be any profit in attacking it.

Actually, beyond that T-shirt there's no electoral politicking in Harold and Kumar. But it's a political film all the same: It's about opening up the Hollywood playing field to a group of people--Asians--that are almost never seen as protagonists in mainstream movies. For example, try to think of two young, Asian-American male actors (Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Chow Yun-Fat are all imports).

Give up? How about John Cho, a Korean-American, and Kal Penn (born Kalpen Modi), an Indian-American? Both of these guys have been around awhile, mostly playing comic ethnic roles (Cho in the American Pie movies and Penn as "Taj Mahal Badalandabad" in Van Wilder) but they're not exactly famous. Yet, here they are, front and center as an Asiatic comic duo, a Cheech and Chong for the Office Space generation.

Cho plays straight man Harold, a junior analyst at a New Jersey investment bank and a stereotypically meek, well-behaved, model minority whose sense of duty makes him perfect for exploitation by his white co-workers. Penn, on the other hand, is prodigal son Kumar, a laid-back slacker whom we first meet intentionally tanking a medical school interview despite his perfect MCAT scores.

The movie, which takes place over the course of a single night, gets rolling when Kumar coaxes Harold, his roommate, away from staying late at the office on a Friday night to get really baked. After succeeding in this objective, the rest of the film is concerned with the titular goal of satisfying a craving for a pile of miniature White Castle burgers. But, as Harold and Kumar discover, there aren't many White Castles in New Jersey, and they proceed to have a hell of time finding one.

The ensuing journey is hit or miss, but director Leiner has the good sense to keep things moving. Destined to be a collegiate staple, Harold and Kumar is crude and lewd--some of it funny and some of it not. One sequence involving a redneck with suppurating boils and a gamine wife is a rocky side trip down to the bottom of the Porky's barrel. There's also a roiling undercurrent of gay anxiety that should have been more thoroughly explored (or exploited), particularly in our post-Y Tu Mama Tambien world. Still, Harold and Kumar has enough potty humor (in both senses) to keep this film spinning in dorm room DVD players for years to come.

But my enjoyment of the film had more to do with its ethnic politics. Set in New Jersey, this film's world is one that is as entirely recognizable to me as it is almost unseen in movies. I went to an urban, Northern university where about half of my classmates were either Jewish or Asian. For me, Harold and Kumar recalled that strange condition I observed in them, of being both privileged in America and excluded from a mom, apple pie and White Castle vision of pop Americana.

Although the film's protagonists are Asian, its director and screenwriters are apparently Jewish. This makes perfect sense, for Asians and Jews alike have borne the burden of high expectations while occasionally being punished for living up to them. Harold and Kumar, like so many with whom I went to school, labor in an environment in which immigrant children are under tremendous pressure to succeed academically and professionally. Early in the film, during a side trip to Princeton University to score some pot, Harold gets roped into an all-Asian social gathering by a nice Asian would-be girlfriend, where he can barely conceal his contempt for his fellow Asians who are all fascinated by his success in investment banking.

Then, in Philip Roth fashion, Harold rejects the bespectacled, triple-majoring Asian girl in favor of the non-Asian girl he covets (a Latina, in fact).

But this movie isn't Goodbye, Columbus. It's far too frivolous, its tone is a little shaky, and sometimes the Ivy League perspective is off-putting. For example, I don't know how moviegoers will respond to Kumar's contemptuous rejection of a promising medical career ("Just because you're hung like a moose doesn't mean you have to be a porn star," he snaps at his med school interviewer). In another scene, Kumar resorts to taunting a dumb cop for his lack of education. All the same, I think the film's scenes of Harold and Kumar being subjected repeatedly to racist bullying will be an eye-opener for everyone else.

It's not often that serious racial violence finds its way into any Hollywood film, much less a shaggy stoner flick like this one. But, as sloppy and crass as it often is, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle is nonetheless a largely successful effort at exploring the idea of American-ness within the narrow confines of the Hollywood comedy genre. And it's a pretty funny effort at that. EndBlock

  • Two unheralded Asian actors headline a surprisingly smart stoner comedy

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