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They're off color

Ethnicity is a detail, not the punch line, in 'Harold and Kumar.'

April 24, 2008|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

It was hardly an auspicious start. In 2004's "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle," two friends, one Korean American, the other Indian American, smoke a lot of pot and decide they want burgers from their favorite fast-food joint. So begins a nightlong, drug-fueled, often surreal odyssey that includes some unsavory high jinks with coeds, a rabid raccoon and a whacked-out cameo from a hopped-up Neil Patrick Harris.

At the time, many wrote off the low-budget movie as just another stoner comedy. But to others, the characters of Harold and Kumar -- weed-smoking and wisecracking but very much of color -- right away read as something different. Somehow, in featuring the misadventures of two regular guys who just happened to not be white, the pair pushed the limits of multiculturalism in contemporary cinema, bringing film closer to speed with changes that seemed to have already taken hold in the world of casting for television.

On its initial release, the film was a disappointment, bringing in just $18 million at the box office, but a steady-building popularity on DVD eventually made a sequel a reality. With one of the most outrageous movie titles in recent memory, "Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay" hits theaters Friday.

Both films -- written by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, who also direct as a team this time out -- quite offhandedly make two characters with strong ethnic cultural identities into the leads, still an unusual move for a mainstream Hollywood movie. For all the talk of the remarkable schlubbiness of the leading men coming off the Apatow conveyor belt, they are still middle-class white guys.

"The theme in these movies is that Harold and Kumar are sort of beyond race," said Schlossberg. "They don't really care that much about their own identities; it's the people around them that sort of haven't gotten it yet."

The new film continues the rollicking ridiculousness of the first, picking up right where "White Castle" left off, as Harold and Kumar prepare to fly to Amsterdam. A series of mishaps -- starting with racial profiling at airport security and a misunderstanding between the words "bong" and "bomb" -- land the pair in the hands of Homeland Security, and soon enough they are kitted out in Gitmo's notorious orange jumpsuits. They are incarcerated for only a few minutes of screen time, though, before busting out of prison and floating back to Miami with a boatload of refugees, setting off on a trek across the American South that peaks when the duo gets high with President George W. Bush in Texas.

According to Hurwitz and Schlossberg, the audience that loved "White Castle" for its pot humor, potty jokes and anything-can-happen sense of wild reinvention is not shocked by the cultural difference of the leads.

"I feel like Hollywood is a little behind the curve usually in terms of what America is ready to accept from a cultural standpoint," said Hurwitz. "Filmgoers are a bit savvier than they are given credit for."

The roles have been a boost for the careers and visibility of John Cho, who plays Harold, and Kal Penn, who plays Kumar. Penn subsequently played the lead in "The Namesake," appeared on "24" and is now a regular on the television series "House." Cho -- previously known for "American Pie" -- has been cast in a number of television pilots and landed the part of Sulu in J.J. Abrams' upcoming reinvention of "Star Trek."

Both actors have always been particularly sensitive to the issues of racial representation. It goes back to even before they were doing the audition rounds earlier in their careers, to memories from childhood. Penn, 31 and from New Jersey, vividly recalled how the release of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," with a scene of an Indian feast, had an immediate effect.

"I remember going to school after the weekend that movie came out and no one wanted to sit next to me at lunch," said Penn. "They completely believed my peanut butter and jelly sandwich certainly had to contain monkey brains. Nobody would sit next to me for a week. Even though I was a kid, that was the first time I realized how seeing something in a film can really affect how you look at things."

It's a theme that Penn takes quite seriously. He's actually, believe it or not, currently a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching courses in "Images of Asian Americans in the Media" and "Contemporary American Teen Films."

Cho, 35 and raised in Los Angeles, recalled his own disappointment at the Long Duk Dong character in "Sixteen Candles" and acknowledged that there can be concerns about the broader cultural meanings a specific role may have.

"It is a bit of a burden just thinking about it all the time," he said. "The point is to have fun in this job, and it makes it a little trickier sometimes. I do feel some amount of pressure, and with every job I've tried to steer clear of things that I feel would embarrass me as an Asian American.

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