he good news about Harold and Kumar Goes to White Castle: it's the first movie by a Hollywood major (New Line) built around two bona fide, native-English-speaking Asian Americans. The bad news: the aftermath will leave John Cho (Harold Lee) with a lot less time to devote to his first love -- singing, songwriting and playing guitar in the rock band Left of Zed.
Asian Americans have reason to be suspicious of a raunchy stoner comedy centered on Asian characters. There's the fear that it's Sixteen Candles squared -- a film that exploits Asian stereotypes for cheap laughs. Harold & Kumar isn't that. For one, no race is off-limits in H&K's unconscionable but mostly successful bid for cheap belly laughs. For another, John Cho is considerably better looking than Gedde Watanabe. In fact, even before H&K's release, Cho was named one of People's 50 hottest bachelors. Even back when Cho was known only as the M.I.L.F guy on American Pie and the goofy Chau in the WB sitcom Off Centre, he beat out Orlando Bloom (People's hottest bachelor) 77% to 23% in an Alloy.com head-to-head hottie squareoff.
Time seems to be on Cho's side. If early audience responses are any guage, Harold and Kumar is an odds-on favorite to become the summer's dark horse hit. That gives Cho a shot at pulling a Keanu Reeves and making the transition from teen goofus (remember Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)?) to grownup hunk.
Of course Keanu Reeves wasn't yet 25 when Bill and Ted hit theaters while John Cho is already 32. But H&K offers more food for thought than B&T -- even if it is only of the drive-through variety. And there's more meat on the bones of the Harold Lee character. Unlike Ted Logan, an airheaded high school uberslacker, Harold Lee is a responsible adult with a real job (junior analyst at an investment banking firm).
It's Friday and Harold is looking forward to a much-needed break from a long week of number-crunching. Just as he's about to leave the office, two white analysts pull rank and dump a last-minute project on him. "Those Asian guys love crunching numbers," says one to assuage the other's guilt pangs. "You probably made his weekend!"
Harold's attempt at begging off from a planned night of stoner partying is rejected by apartment-mate Kumar (Kal Penn), an Indo-American wiz kid leeching off his surgeon father while putting off med school. On his way home Harold shares the apartment elevator with a hot Latina neighbor named Maria (Paula Graces). In that moment of tongue-tied agony and ecstasy we are clued in that Harold possesses a dimension not usually found in stoner comedies.
After Harold doffs his coat and tie, the duo get down to serious toking. Before long they are overcome by a bad case of the munchies. A timely TV commercial for White Castle burgers sears the evening's agenda into their THC-drenched brains: to find and devour many many of those badboys. Unlike the over-the-top Kumar, Harold is enough of a serious professional to take along his laptop so he can work during the ride.
As any road-movie fan knows, a trip to the drive-through is never just that. Along the way the buzzed duo encounter Asian ivy league supernerds, English girls with highly pressurized intestines, race-baiting white punks, a Desi gas station operator, an abusive cop, a pus-oozing hillbilly with a young sexpot wife, Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser, M.D.) in dry-humping heat and a half dozen other situations that crowd the margins of a stoner's paranoid semi-consciousness.
Through it all Harold Lee is the repressed straight man to Kumar's irrepressible horndog party animal. "Just let her touch your penis," Kumar advises Harold à propos an infatuated Corean (Korean) American Princeton student. Later, following a different encounter, Kumar asks, "So, did she touch your penis?"
One of the flick's surprising touches are the moments of serious reflection on racial prejudice and stereotypes. "So you pick on the quiet Asian guy," rants Kumar to a cop who writes Harold an undeserved jaywalking ticket. What ultimately elevates H&K above run-of-the-mill Hollywood genre flicks is that both Harold and Kumar shake off stereotypes as a natural offshoot of coherent character development. And it all happens without mawkish preaching or cornball moments.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter whether the concept for H&K was inspired by multicultural impulses or by some canny demographic calculation. What matters is that moviegoers are embracing it for delivering everything they expect in a raunchy stoner comedy -- not despite, or because of, the ethnicity of its main characters but because of their appeal as characters. In that regard, H&K is a pioneering film that will expand the possibilities for Asian American actors and writers. Much of the credit goes to director Danny Leiner (Everwood; Dude, Where's My Car?) and his practiced hand at tapping the humor inherent in the random quality of youthful experiences without violating the integrity of his characters.PAGE 2