Reappraisal: 'Harold and Kumar: Escape from Guantanamo Bay' is a clever, outsized satire
In Reappraisals, Michigan Daily film writers attempt to defend films that have been critically maligned.
This week: "Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay."
The “Harold and Kumar” franchise might fall under the category of “stoner comedy,” but these films are littered with clever observations on race and politics. The second installment, “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay,” received only mild reviews. It challenges stereotypes throughout the movie, however, in a way the first and third films do not accomplish as successfully.
Harold (John Cho, “Columbus”) and Kumar (Kal Penn, “How I Met Your Mother”) are roommates planning a trip to Amsterdam as a romantic gesture. Harold is an investment banker, while Kumar purposefully failed to apply to medical school. Unfortunately, Kumar’s marijuana-related habits lead to their arrest and sentencing to Guantanamo Bay. Through a series of improbable, but hilarious, fortunes and misfortunes, the two end up on the run from Homeland Security.
“Guantanamo Bay,” released in 2008 when awareness of xenophobia was not at the forefront of popular discourse, examines the justice system and the way America treats minorities in a revealing light. At airport security, Kumar is subjected to racial profiling through a “random” search (although he did make a scene to smuggle in drugs). Then, on board the plane, a racist elderly white woman views Kumar as a turban-wearing, beard-sporting, evilly-laughing terrorist, when he is really a goofy Indian guy in a sloppy outfit. When she sees him light a makeshift bong in the lavatory, she screams “Terrorist!” and sends the flight into chaos.
Harold and Kumar wait in an interrogation room as an idiotic and racist Homeland Security officer, Ron Fox (Rob Corddry, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”), celebrates capturing a member of Al Qaeda and a North Korean terrorist. Of course, these two are actually just American citizens with bad luck. Through its absurdist humor, “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay” addresses the way obsessed politicians treat suspected terrorists. The two friends have no right to an attorney, a trial or, as Fox puts it, “freedoms.”
After Harold and Kumar miraculously escape prison, the film questions the stereotypes they view the world through. They meet a group of Cubans on their way to America without documentation who are kind enough to transport them to Florida. Later, the pair interrupts a street basketball game in a rundown neighborhood, accidentally destroying the shoes and jukebox of many muscular Black men. Harold and Kumar decide to flee, but their unfounded prejudices are revealed when the men bring out tools to help fix the pair’s car. The only stereotyped group the film does not spare are some white supremacists the friends encounter who are ridiculed without mercy.
The over-the-top humor in “Guantanamo Bay” makes racism a more accessible topic to discuss. There is nothing accusatory in the nature of the film, but rather it is an equal-opportunity offender. Through extreme plotlines, the film shows the ridiculousness of many stereotypes. When Harold and Kumar meet a hospitable southern couple in the backwoods of Alabama, they expect to stay in a beaten-up house. Instead, the couple have a luxurious, modern home on the interior. To address the stereotype that Southerners engage in incest, the film turns the supposedly inbred son into a cyclops who lives in the basement — a bit so outrageous the stereotype becomes obsolete.
Raunchy comedies often make bold critical statements that are easy to overlook. Adam McKay’s “Anchorman” may lack a plausible plot, but it fully satirizes the television news industry. “21 Jump Street” couples excessive crudeness with a witty take on buddy-cop films. Although there are moments of misogyny and unnecessary nudity in “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay,” there are also scenes with hidden commentary on racism and classism in our country — and for this, the film deserves more recognition.