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Everything you need to know about the difference between Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004) and the just-released Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay (New Line) is right there in the titles. The original, a theatrical flop that found a cult following on DVD, elevated the banal quest for burgers into an improbably inspiring tribute to friendship, spontaneity, racial tolerance, and the problem-solving properties of weed. The sequel takes a far more serious subject—racial profiling and the war on terror—and manages to render it completely banal.
This movie picks up only minutes after the original ended, as post-college roommates Kumar and Harold (Kal Penn and John Cho) recover from the effects of their all-night fast-food journey. (The first of many scatological gags involves the protracted and noisy evacuation of the very sliders Kumar scarfed down at the end of Part 1.) As soon as the boys get those burgers out of their system, they're off to Amsterdam, where Harold plans to follow the girl of his dreams (Paula Garcés) and Kumar plans to get legally baked. But Kumar, ever the king of bad judgment, boards the plane with a smokeless bong—or "bomb," as misheard by one paranoid fellow passenger.
This mix-up, paired with the boys' brown skin (Harold is Korean-American, Kumar of Indian descent) is enough to ground the plane and land them in the clutches of a Department of Homeland Security wing nut (Rob Corddry) who takes their friendship to mean that "al-Qaida and North Korea are working together." The lads are summarily dispatched to Gitmo, from whence—after a depressingly homophobic gag about being forced to fellate their captors—they escape on a raft full of departing Cubans. The rest of the movie is a chase through the Southern United States toward Texas, where a smug college buddy with connections in the Bush administration may be able to clear their names.
Pursued by the Feds, Kumar and Harold careen through the deep South accruing misadventures, most of which involve sex, drugs, or race. Some scenes, like their hooded infiltration of a Ku Klux Klan meeting, strike just the right note of shambling absurdity. But most of the wannabe outrageous racial humor (Corddry's interrogation techniques function on the assumption that Jews will do anything for money, while blacks can be broken by withholding grape soda) is too shallow to constitute real satire. Lamest of all is the moment when, having literally parachuted their way into Bush's Crawford retreat, they wind up getting blazed with the commander in chief. Not only is James Adomian's wax-museum Bush impersonation a far cry from Will Ferrell's, but the warm and fuzzy bonhomie of this scene betrays whatever mildly subversive humor might have preceded it. If smoking pot makes even the guy responsible for Guantanamo into a high-fiving bro, isn't that an insult to the good name of weed?
This may be the worst sin of Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay: It betrays the spirit of the stoner comedy, which has traditionally been subversive—when it wasn't detailing the love affair between two marginally functional young men and their stash of sweet, sweet herb. (Last year's Smiley Face, in which Anna Faris played a solo female stoner, was an underrated exception to the two-guy rule.) Toking up is all the better with that one friend who really gets you—and that friendship, in turn, is burnished by the weed-fueled adventures you share. Cho and Penn's giggly chemistry in the first movie was a celebration of that sacred bond. But not only are Kumar and Harold hardly ever high this time around; they're scarcely on speaking terms. For a good four-fifths of the film, Harold is fuming about Kumar's (admittedly idiotic) sabotage of their Amsterdam trip, and his grudge saddles the movie with a mood of glum sourness. Neil Patrick Harris, reprising a cameo role as his ex-Doogie Howser self, is a welcome diversion—but his character's eventual fate is such a puzzling downer you find yourself wishing, against all your best instincts, for a sequel. Harold and Kumar Toke Up in Tora Bora? If you were really, really high, that might be good for a laugh.