Harold and Kumar go to White Castle

Harold and Kumar go to White Castle. Senator International/Kingsgate 2004.

Before watching the movie:

I’ve been on the fence about trying this movie for a long time, as well as about reviewing it. This seemed like it had a pretty big cultural impact that lasted longer than the rest of the late night comedies of its time. It had at least two sequels, the leads both went on to bigger and better things, and I think this movie was what restarted Neil Patrick Harris’s acting career.

So while it is an R-rated comedy about a pair of stoners, it seems to be still relevant and probably worth reviewing despite some objectionable content, or at the very least an anthropological study of a snapshot of a subculture from the recent past.

After watching the movie:

Diligent, meek cubicle drone Harold Lee shares an apartment in Hoboken with slacker Kumar Patel, whose occupation is scamming his father out of rent by blowing medical school interviews. A couple of Harold’s coworkers dump their work on him so they can get started early on their party weekend, forcing Harold to work through his own weekend even though he was going to spend it smoking lots of weed with Kumar. They smoke early in the evening and get hungry, but between wanting to eat something they haven’t had in a while and a perfectly timed TV ad, they set themselves on White Castle, remembering one in New Brunswick. Unfortunately, when they arrive, they find that the location has been taken over by the disappointing and disgusting Burger Shack, and are directed to try the one in Cherry Hill over 45 minutes away. Dead set on getting their craving, they begin the drive. But with setbacks and diversions constantly plaguing them all night, their dinner, safety, friendship, and livelihood are all put at risk.

As a 2004 R-rated movie, there are absolutely uncomfortable scenes. “Two potheads on a crazy road trip to satisfy their munchies,” which isn’t much less than I knew going in, doesn’t cover the harmful stereotypes played for jokes, bigotry, and chauvinism that the first half has in spades. This movie is sold as a raunchy stoner comedy and it probably delivers enough of that to satisfy the people coming to it for that purpose. There is an extended dream sequence where a character imagines falling in love with, marrying, and divorcing a garbage bag-sized sack of marijuana. It’s probably the stupidest part of the movie.

But after the first act, the plot starts to take control, and it comes into focus a modern odyssey that centers two first-generation Asian-Americans and makes the challenges they specifically face as part of their heritage. A lot of time is spent satirizing the unchecked bigotry of small town cops. There’s also not as much marijuana use as I expected, probably because people who are stoned don’t tend to do much. I myself am repulsed by the smell of the stuff, but it seems to be at least no more harmful than some much more accepted chemical dependencies, and I don’t have a problem with other people’s responsible use. “Weed. That’s the joke.” style humor is even less to my taste, but I hope that the tide of legalization makes that fade into obscurity.

The joke of Neil Patrick Harris showing up in a coke-induced fugue state plays completely differently than it must have in 2004. I had to keep in mind that back then, he was pretty much just a former child star, but in part thanks to the popularity of his appearance here, he’s made a big comeback in the last decade and change, and most people now know him from How I Met Your Mother or A Series of Unfortunate Events. It’s also really weird to see John Cho here, since I think his work since has been more serious and perhaps action oriented. However, I think Kal Penn has stayed pretty close to comedy, except for the time he took off from acting to be an Obama White House staffer, which is a different kind of weird.

I would not recommend this movie to most people. There is a lot that should have stayed in the past, which I hope the sequels had in lesser portions as consciousnesses evolved. However there’s also a surprising gem of a story once they get the “late night comedy” out of their system, and that’s surely a major reason why it’s endured where others of the genre have been forgotten. Also I live in a state without White Castle now and I can sympathize with how nothing makes one want a mediocre but unique food more than unobtainability.

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