It’s hard to blame the movies themselves for the less-than-ultimate “ultimate collection” containing them. That goes double for Harold & Kumar , the Cheech and Chong of the 21st century, whose amiable stoner antics don’t invite the sort of double-dipping this set was meant for. The movies are fine… only the packaging leaves something to be desired. Hit the jump for my full review of the Blu-ray featuring Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, and A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas.
All three of the Harold & Kumar movies display the same sort of genteel outrageousness, pushing various social hot buttons and trusting in their audience’s proclivity for weed to pull them through. Even when viewed sober, however, they’re all quite agreeable, as slacker medical student Kumar (Kal Penn) drags his uptight pal ‘Rold (John Cho) through a series of far-fetched adventures in search of an utterly trivial goal. Along the way, they must counter various imminent threats, deal with a range of screaming lunatics (including Neil Patrick Harris; more on him later), and get well and truly baked thanks to waxing and waning amounts of pot at their disposal.
I confess I’ve never watched these films in an altered state of consciousness, but I am assured by those in the know that you really haven’t seen them until you do. We can take it as a given that the trilogy’s breezy style rises to the level of genius for the stoner set… and indeed, the films would be major failures if they didn’t. Penn and Cho’s copious chemistry drives the humor forward, and while the jokes occasionally descend into the puerile, you can’t say they didn’t warn you beforehand.
And in their own quiet way, the trilogy actually does quite a bit to dispel existing racial stereotypes. We rarely see Asians as just ordinary guys the way they appear here… and almost never as the central characters. The jokes come at the expense of stereotyping, not the heroes themselves (who, let’s face it, get into plenty of trouble without bringing their race into it). It’s hard to ascribe higher social motives to such proudly juvenile films, but they’ve probably done more to change people’s attitudes than a thousand well-meaning message pictures.
We’ll take a quick look at each of the three movies in the trilogy, followed by an analysis of the set in which they appear:
Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle
It’s a bit hyperbolic to call this “the one that started it all,” and indeed its heroes would probably mock us mercilessly for doing so. But be that as it may, something felt different when this arrived in 2004. The silly plot involved our heroes seeking out the titular fast food restaurant while Harold struggles to finish office work that some serious douche bags dropped on him. Along the way, they troll through the darkest corners of New Jersey: encountering racist cops, Princeton overachievers and a boil-ridden tow-truck driver (Christopher Meloni) with varying levels of wacky mayhem included. The movie’s penchant for button pushing clearly emulated the successful American Pie movies, but the screenwriters invested it with a great deal of wit. That’s enough to make it a solid good time, though nothing you’d remember once the credits started rolling.
That is, except for one seemingly throwaway element. In the midst of their adventures, the pair run into Neil Patrick Harris, playing a debauched version of himself. At the time, the actor was gliding gently into post Doogie Howser obscurity without so much as a drunk driving arrest to mark the passage. Any other actor would have phoned it in, collected his check and been done with it. But Harris boldly embraces his bacchanalian alter ego here, embodying the NPH-as-tabloid-fodder that never was. In one fell swoop, he reinvented his image… and eight years later still stands as one of the coolest cats on the planet. It all started here, and pop culture is a better place because of it.
As with the other two discs in the set, the Blu-ray is a repackaged version of the stand-alone release. It features plenty of funny extras, including three audio commentaries, deleted scenes, a look at White Castle’s Hall of Fame ceremony (yes, really) and an interview with Cho and Penn from fellow cast member Bobby Lee. The menu options are pretty funny too: featuring Harold and Kumar commenting on the user’s ability (or inability) to make a decision.
Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay
The franchise stumbles quite a bit during its second outing… though it’s hard to jump on it too hard since it still delivers a modicum of laughs. Escape from Guantanamo Bay dates itself very badly, as the boys land in the Gitmo following a pot-based misunderstanding on an airplane. After busting out, they need to get to Texas, where one of their douchy college buddies can help clear them (right after he marries Kumar’s ex). As with the first film, they run into all kinds of zaniness along the way (including NPH again, wielding a branding iron and baggie full of shrooms). This time, however, they take aim at pertinent topics of the time, specifically the Bush administration’s War on Terror and attendant cultural nonsense. They couldn’t scream “2006” any harder if they tried (unfortunate since the movie came out in 2008 and had already passed its expiration date). Rob Corddry scores some points as the obnoxious federal agent hunting them, and Harris is worth the cost on his own, but otherwise, this second outing runs far behind the two efforts flanking it.
Luckily, the extra features make up a lot of ground. The best is a “Change the Movie” feature that lets you pause at certain critical junctures and decide what the characters do. You’re then treated to an alternative film – usually lasting a few minutes and/or seguing back into the “real” movie – which displays the ramifications of your choice. The gimmick works surprisingly well, and does a great deal to salvage the experience. Other features include the usual spread of audio commentaries, cut scenes and irreverent behind-the-scenes stuff.
A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas
The third film ranks as the best, with the creators abandoning political commentary in favor of a more perennial target: Christmas. This time, the boys head out on Christmas to find a new tree for Harold, while patching up their frayed friendship in the bargain. The gags feel much sharper this time around, and the duo’s lovable bickering is tinged with some grown-up responsibilities that give it a sense of distinction. Not too grown-up, of course, thanks to an ongoing gag involving a drug addled infant and similar bits of mischief. Harris returns to reconcile his onscreen sex addict with his real-life monogamous gay marriage, and iconic Christmas traditions like Santa and Rankin Bass specials take it right on the chin. The 3-D version is missing here, but that hardly matters since the deliberately over-the-top effects in the theatrical release still garner plenty of laughs.
Sadly, the bonus features can’t match the standard set by the first two movies. An irrelevant “extended cut” drops the hysterical monster snowman song while delivering nothing in return; otherwise, the set contains just a few deleted scenes, a breakdown of the stop-motion sequence and some mildly amusing shorts from cast member Thomas Lennon.
The new set doesn’t bring much to the equation either. The three movies are contained in a single case, meaning that it doesn’t take up much space on the shelf. That’s the only real selling point. The case is held inside a flimsy giant lighter, along with a trio of themed air fresheners and a set of coasters from White Castle. It feels cheap and slapdash, though again, I cannot comment on the humor value of such tchotchkes when approached under the influence. It’s an easy way to pick up all three films in one fell swoop, but otherwise the set comes across as a colossal waste of resources.
Luckily, the movies themselves aren’t affected by that, giving plenty of viewing fodder for those inclined to take the occasional bong break on the couch. The “ultimate edition” is anything but, and yet Harold & Kumar endure. They’re used to it after all: what’s one more bit of idiocy standing in their way?