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When Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle debuted in 2004, it was a milestone of sorts - a mainstream, gross-out, stoner comedy with two Asian American men cast as leads. Sure, the humor was juvenile and unapologetically male, there was everything from naked breasts to literal bathroom humor, and a dream sequence featuring an anthropomorphalized bag of weed. Do The Right Thing this was not.
But it did represent an achivement of sorts, symbolically to be sure, but also commercially. The movie had enough of a cult following to warrant a sequel (not to mention revitalize Neal Patrick Harris' career, a remarkable feat on its own), thus suggesting that - hey, Asian American leads won't kill your film. I hope the producers of 21 are pondering this.
The film's sequel, Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay is an achievement of a kind too, proof that Asian Americans have made it far enough into the Hollywood machine that they can make perfectly mediocre mainstream fare as much as the next folks. Woo hoo, the promised land!
In all seriousness, it's not like anyone was expecting something approaching genius. I was hoping for "adequately funny," something on the level, at best, of a 40 Year Old Virgin or even Superbad (and yeah, there's a huge difference in the quality of funny between those two flicks).
The laugh-o-meter here was somewhere closer to, oh, Walk Hard, which is to say: not that funny. John Cho and Kal Penn are fun enough to watch at times but there's little new creative soil for either to plow. The funniest single scene was probably when Cho shows up in the library stacks, goth-ed out. It lasted all of a few seconds and he didn't even speak but just the sight of him in masscara was good enough. Penn had fewer moments here than in the previous film - the giant bag of weed returned (anatomically correct no less) but that joke really only works once. And while we're keeping score on this kind of thing: too much Rob Cordury, just a touch too much Neil Patrick Harris, and not enough Chris Meloni. And oh yeah, either too much or not enough pubic shots, depending on your taste.
So, in the end, it was "meh" but the thing is...I didn't feel like, "oh crap, we blew our chance!" And maybe that says something more than the film, on its own, can say...that the fact that an Asian American-lead comedy can be mediocre seems ordinary and harmless rather than a hand-wringing disaster. Of course, it helps that the film also is already in the black after the first weekend, earning a very respectable $14M (the original only made $18M total in theaters). Even if the flick has earned middling reviews, the monetary gains won't hurt Kal Penn or John Cho's future chances and may help open that golden door for other Asian American actors and filmmakers to walk through.
Let me end by throwing this question out: the sexual politics in this film are not particularly glowing - not to anyone's surprise of course - but I wonder how many of the men, so huffy puffy at Falling From Grace are going to raise any issues with this flick? (Yeah, I just went there).
Let me also add: why does it mean when a writing and directing team of all White men can make a more commercially successful franchise lead by Asian American men than most Asian American filmmakers? I'm not asking this rhetorically - I'm seriously curious how this happens.