440. Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle

★★★★

White Castle is not a good fast food establishment. Primarily located along the east coast and in unlucky midwestern states, White Castle established itself among its super-sized peers through its trademark but tasteless bite-sized burgers. That’s why it’s so baffling that Harold and Kumar would be enticed by such a B-level chain establishment when there are so many more deserving fast food joints lurking in the dark reaches of the tri-state area.

But it was a random late-night ad that aroused Harold and Kumar’s beefy, THC-induced appetite, one that could have been for a local Ramen joint or a two-star pizza place two exits out of town had they just picked a different TV show to doze out in front of. In that conundrum, the indiscriminate choosing of channel and the fateful quest of curly-fried character, does “Harold and Kumar go to White Castle” find its greasy wings to soar through the night.

It’s a movie so clever, banal and hilarious that it feels like it has no right accomplishing all it does within its minuscule 90 minutes. But in that time, we understand that Harold (John Cho) is a pushover at the office, a mute when near his crush Maria (Paula Garces) in the elevator, and a complainer when in the realm of his much cooler roommate Kumar (Kal Penn). Kumar, though, is a brilliant medical prodigy, a charismatic drug user with no help needed in the ladies department, and a perennial thorn in his roommate’s paw. How they ended up sequestered together in a reasonably-posh apartment is beyond us, but there they sit and here we watch.

Throughout their romp, we encounter ambitious and hard-partying Asian Ivy-leaguers,  Mountain Dew-guzzling X-Games enthusiasts who’ve probably never strapped on a pair of skis before, homoerotic doctors and overly-erotic homemakers, closet-racist cops and zen-like imprisoned African Americans, Neil Patrick Harris, and unnamed businessmen and potential serial stabbers who refuse to abide by proper roadside, bush-urinating conduct. Each side character, through their farce and faults, unintentionally mold Harold and Kumar closer into the men they were always meant to be. It’s just like “Eat, Pray, Love” if Julia Roberts’ global journey happened in one night in New Jersey, and there were a bit more fart jokes.

Outside of the “Harold and Kumar” sequels and the recent YouTube series “Kobra Cai,” writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Scholssberg haven’t lent their efforts to many Hollywood comedies since this initial “White Castle” outing. That’s odd, considering “White Castle” feels like an early ancestor of tightly-constructed and equally-insightful modern comedies like “Blockers” and “Game Night,” easy-to-follow stories with characters’ whose key drives are mentioned in the first 10 minutes and never forgotten throughout.

But one must consider how “Harold and Kumar,” even though it doesn’t feel outdated, is still very much a product of and response to the Bush era, where there was a near-universal dislike of the leadership in charge but people responded with apathy instead of protests or anger on social media. Kumar’s ambivalence towards becoming a doctor stems not from talent but lack of motivation. Harold’s reluctance to stand up to his bosses isn’t so much because he’s a pussy, but rather he doesn’t care for the job at all, evidenced by his lack of enthusiasm when another Asian student asks for an internship.

If “White Castle” were to happen today, these diverse men would likely be more invigorated about protecting the world, or at least more concerned about their place in it. But in the early 2000s, when the world’s 20-somethings looked President Bush straight in the eye and gave a collective, triumphant “meh,” “White Castle” reminded us that happiness and fulfillment was just an elevator ride with an attractive neighbor away, that you could change yourself to become all the things you wanted to be, as long as someone else made the changes for you.

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