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Review: 'Harold and Kumar' is smokin' -- sometimes

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  • CNN.com's Tom Charity: "Harold and Kumar" scores some points
  • Movie full of gross-out jokes, but manages moments of satire
  • Film might be better if viewers are less than sober
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By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle," a stoner comedy that became a cult favorite on DVD, was a slacker quest movie -- as wonderfully oxymoronic as that sounds.

Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) find themselves in Guantanamo Bay's prison after some mishaps.

The two roommates -- medical student Kumar (Kal Penn) and his investment banker buddy Harold (John Cho) -- only wanted a burger to complement their evening buzz, an apparently simple wish that took on Tolkein-level proportions of strife and difficulty.

Picking up the story merely a couple of hours later, "Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay" reverses the trajectory (this time they're fugitives) and raises the dramatic stakes considerably (the U.S. government is on their tail) without losing its, uh, irreverence.

Indeed, politics junkies intrigued by that title should be aware they will have to run the gamut of bad taste jokes and toilet humor to enjoy a smattering of satire.

In the very first scene, Harold is indulging in some sexual satisfaction in the shower, only to be interrupted by his friend's epic bowel movements. You can't accuse writer-directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg of overestimating their fratboy base.

Still, it's their latent smarts that make this gross-out comedy stand out.

Cho may play the square to Penn's hedonistic hipster, but they are both urbane, articulate and intelligent when they put their minds to it. Kumar doesn't want to be an M.D. just because his father expects it of him, but it's obvious he has the I.Q.

They're closer to a modern Hope and Crosby than Cheech and Chong, although Tommy Chong -- who was imprisoned in real life a couple of years ago for selling mail-order drug paraphernalia -- might sympathize when the boys are expedited to Guantanamo Bay after Kumar smuggles his patented smoke-free bong on board a transatlantic flight.

"Daily Show" veteran Rob Corddry plays the acting head of the Department of Homeland Security, a rabidly racist reactionary who is thrilled to imagine al Qaeda is working hand-in-glove with North Korea on his watch. In what is surely the movie's most subversive gesture, Corddry literally wipes his backside with the Fifth Amendment.

Gitmo only features in a cameo role, the scene of a predictable gay-rape gag. Two wild-eyed terrorists are allowed to voice their beef with America, but it's not the message Morgan Spurlock hears in "Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden." Apparently it's all about the doughnuts.

After the buddies' quick escape, the movie turns into a cross-country road trip, taking in Miami (a bottomless party), Alabama (big black men and the KKK) and Texas ("White Castle" holdover Neil Patrick Harris, a whorehouse and a distinctly unpresidential, spliff-smoking Dubya).

"Harold and Kumar" wants to mock its stereotypes and have them too, but the movie's racial and regional profiling is reasonably adept. There hasn't been a more skeptical cross-section of the South since "Borat," in which the portion of the population containing stupid, rich, arrogant white guys gets the worst of it.

But is it funny? Like most stoner comedies, it rather depends on what frame of mind you're in at the time. Stone-cold sober it's patchy at best. But the cheerful facetiousness, vulgarity and outrage does add up to some sort of libertarian statement; It's a naughty spin on the great American melting -- uh -- pot.

"Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay" is rated R and runs 102 minutes. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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