Harold & Kumar Go to the White Castle

September 23rd, 2004 Film, Film Reviews, Personalities, Xpress

Directed by: Danny Leiner

Starring; John Cho, Kal Penn, Anthony Anderson, Fred Willard

How much does Harold & Kumar director Danny Leiner owe his career to Keanu Reeves? With pal Alex Winter, Reeves and director Stephen Herek created a new genre way back in 1989 — the ‘moron’ teen comedy, where the young protagonists are so stupid they’re lovable.

Among the first films to create a cultural marketing fixture — that of making everyone interested in the glossary of the heroes’ vocabulary (used to sell everything from Wayne’s World to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) — Bill & Ted spawned a long line of films that didn’t usually appeal to people over 25.

Among their progeny was the 21st century update Dude, Where’s My Car?, a direct ascendant of Harold & Kumar (despite having the same director). In fact Harold & Kumar is so similar in tone and subject to the 2000 Asthon Kutcher/Seann William Scott vehicle, some parts of it will seem more than a little familiar. But even if you’re not a fan of the ‘moron’ teen comedy genre, the cut-rate charm is something to see.

And the charm is just one of the things that attracted Leiner to the project. After a bit of convincing, that is.

‘I was actually resistant to doing another one of these movies, because after I’d done Dude I didn’t want to fall into stoner road trip movies,’ Leiner says from LA. ‘After Dude I was so against doing Harold & Kumar I refused to even read the script for quite awhile. When I did I was so blown away because it made me really laugh and very few scripts do that.’

Harold & Kumar is actually similar enough to Dude, Where’s My Car that when you realise Leiner directed them both, you’d think you were talking to the reigning king of dumb stoner comedies the way David Lynch is the king of mind bending guessing games.

It’s a title that’s not lost on Leiner, and one he’s wary of. ‘I’m definitely known for the broad stoner comedies,’ he thinks, ‘but I believe you have to create your own opportunities, it’s the one way you can break out of being pigeonholed. To that end I created my own company and did a movie that I’m editing right now, which is a departure from anything else I’ve made.’

Another fact Australian audiences might not realise is that White Castle is an actual regional burger chain on the US east coast. Is it the most blatant example of product placement since the constant FedEx exposure in the Tom Hanks drama Cast Away, or something more?

‘I asked myself how we could get White Castle involved in this movie,’ Leiner recalls, ‘there’s a lot of drug use, sexual innuendo, nudity and language. But there’s something about the chain itself, it has a cult-like following, and part of the appeal was to retain that kind of vibe. Fortunately it’s not owned by a corporation, it’s a family-owned chain and they were smart enough and cool enough to let us use the name.’

So what sort of movie would a burger chain let itself be attached to so visibly? Well, don’t expect multiple levels of depth and analysis; it’s neither terribly original nor terribly smart, but it’s hard not to like because of the charisma and chemistry of unknown leads Cho and Penn.

Harold & Kumar tells a simple story. Two young flatmates — after a hard week of what they do best (for Harold; work excessively, for Kumar; party excessively and wreck the interviews his father sets up for him at prestigious medical schools) — want nothing more than to sit in their apartment and get stoned.

With a decent supply and some bad TV, they get appropriately high, and when an ad for the White Castle burger chain comes on, they set out on a seemingly simple mission to satisfy their munchies.

The film deals with their adventures in lust, drugs and backroads in a quest that will take them all night and throw up many an obstacle, including a bunch of extreme sports bullies, an escaped cheetah, the girl of Harold’s dreams, a creepy redneck and his hot wife, a cop that takes himself too seriously, and a fat bag of weed.

Some of the humour is fast and effective, some of it’s banal and some is just the sort of gross you probably have to be of junior high school age to find funny.

But it’s an honest effort and harmless fun, seeming to have more in common with Evil Dead than American Pie (like a bunch of college age friends having fun with a camera rather than a film concerned with the traditional constraints of the three-act structure).

And while the lead duo share an effective comic sparring partnership, the biggest pleasure is watching another self-depreciating turn by Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser MD). After the role he played taking the piss out of himself in Undercover Brother, he compliments it here playing himself as an edgy, horny hitchhiker, and if he keeps it up, will make himself a comic cult figure.

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