Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004)

Rated R Our content rating: V-2; L-6; S/N-7.

And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
Luke 13:30

Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle

This a fun-filled, but very vulgar, twist on the old genres of buddy road films and bottom-feeding nerds. The first refreshing twist is the fact that the two main characters Harold and Kumar are the types usually relegated to background or supporting roles in such movies. Instead of two white dudes, we have two Asian Americans— Harold Lee (John Cho) is a Korean American, and Kumar Patel’s (Kal Penn) family are immigrants from India. Harold works at a large finacial/investment firm where his white coworkers regard him with such disdain that they shove off onto him all the tasks they do not want. Kumar is the slacker son of a physician who deliberately torpedoes the interviews his father sets up for him at prestigious medical schools. The usually stoned son definitely does not want to walk in the footsteps of his father.

Another twist on the old formula is their destination. Now working and living in New York and New Jersey, the transplanted Midwesterners see on cable an ad for White Castle, and suddenly a craving for the greasy little burgers is aroused, quickly becoming an obsession when they cannot find a White Castle in their area. An assignment that must be handed in by Monday has been unfairly passed on by the guy who mocks Harold the most, so Kumar has to do a bit of persuading. Harold, with laptop in hand so that he can work on the report enroute, finally gives in. The craving for a White Castle must be satisfied at all costs.

You have to have grown up in the Midwest to fully appreciate the humor in their choice of destination, so entirely appropriate for these guys whom everyone regards as losers. White Castle, which predates McDonalds and Wendys by almost 40 years, is the ultimate fast food loser for many Midwesterners, who would prefer a $5 or $6.95 burger and trimmings at a more upscale restaurant to WC’s $.44 midget burger. As a little boy I remember living in a walkup apartment looking out onto a corner White Castle and being able to smell the combination of mixed meat, onions and grease wafting up at all hours. Their slogan was, and still I, “Buy ‘em by the sack”—they were then a nickel apiece, so many a night when having friends in, my parents would bring home several sacks full of them. Lacking all culinary finness in those per-Julia Childs/Martha Stewart days, my six year-old mind thought they were the greatest of food treats. The meat was of an indeterminate origin (no 100% beef in WC ads), so many were the jokes about missing horses and cats & dogs that were circulated. By the time I heard these my level of gastronomic sophistication had risen a bit (though I confess that once in a while I too feel the craving and stop into one of the many WCs to be found in the Cincinnati area—Harold and Kumas should be so lucky). Thus, for a Midwesterner, the very idea of going to all the trouble that our two heroes do in order to obtain a batch (one is so small that it serves more as an appetizer) of the low-life goodies is a real hoot.

In a Joseph Campbell sense Harold and Kumar engage in a “hero’s journey,” one which includes a stop at Princeton University (this episode will probably never be referred to in that University’s recruitment materials!); riding cheetahs; fighting with raccoons; being arrested and thrown into jail with an African American activist; corrupt cops; a boil-covered tow-truck driver named Freakshow (Christopher Meloni); and even a late night encounter with an oversexed Doogie Howser. Much of the humor is at the junior high or college sophomore level, but many of the observations are not—and the old theme of “the last becoming first” is delightfully embedded in the tale. Our characters do change because of their experiences and the insights gained, especially when they talk with the African American and see what it is really like to be considered and treated like an outsider.

Director Danny Leiner and screenwriters Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg have come up with a zany film that should attract young adults, while giving church leaders, with an open enough mind and a desire to connect with pop culture, an opportunity to explore some important themes. Just be prepared for some very low brow humor, but don’t let this keep you away from a rewarding film experience, at least for those who take the time to look beneath the surface of a film.