By Pete Vonder Haar | April 25, 2008

The “stoner comedy,” for years the unwanted rural half-brother of the genre, is enjoying a renaissance of late. Weed’s public profile is at an all-time high, which means the days of sneaking into “Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke” after buying a ticket to “Grease” (not that I know anybody who did that) are over. From “Friday” and “Dazed and Confused” to “Super Troopers” and the upcoming “Pineapple Express,” bud is definitely back.

One of the movies that contributed to this cinematic rebirth was 2004’s “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” a surprisingly agreeable flick that followed the titular ‘heads (John Cho and Kal Penn) on a bong-fueled quest for sliders. The sequel (the slightly more cumbersome “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay”) picks up the action immediately afterwards. The two are preparing for their trip to Amsterdam, where Harold hopes to connect with his hot neighbor Maria. Things go awry on the flight, however, when Kumar unveils his new invention: a smokeless bong that just happens to look like a bomb. Post-9/11 paranoia being what it is, the boys are snapped up by the authorities and end up in our finest Cuban gulag.

The title is a bit misleading, as the pair spends barely ten minutes detained in/escaping from Guantanamo. Their trek from Miami to Texas (to seek assistance from Harold’s friend Colton while ruining his marriage to Kumar’s old flame Vanessa) is – as in the first movie – merely an excuse for our heroes to have a series of excellent unlikely adventures, from a “bottomless” pool party to a Klan rally to meeting the President of the United States himself (and happily, there’s also another encounter with an exceedingly randy Neil Patrick Harris). They’re pursued all the while by the U.S. Government, led by the belligerent Ron Fox (Rob Corddry), an Assistant Secretary of something or other broadly written as a representation of official American belligerence and stupidity.

But the metric by which any comedy must be measured is in the number of laughs provided, and “Harold and Kumar” delivers. It isn’t family fare, by any stretch of the imagination: gratuitous nudity, toilet humor, and scenes designed purely to offend are the order of the day (I was particularly startled/amused by a previously undisclosed Guantanamo torture technique). And while similar gross-out efforts are often presented with a good deal more cruelty (e.g. the Farrellys), writer/directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg aren’t particular interested in sticking the knife in unless the characters in question truly deserve it.

Honestly, the most shocking thing put forth in “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay” just might be the proposition that George W. Bush is actually a pretty cool guy.

Part of the movie’s appeal (aside from the duo’s pan-Asian good looks) is that H & K veer from the path of their stoner forebears. They’re not smirking delinquents like Jay and Silent Bob, or aging hippies like Cheech and Chong. Harold is gainfully employed, and Kumar’s lack of motivation in pursuing a medical career isn’t so much drug-related as it is a result of daddy issues. Weed is more of an adjunct to their existence than the primary motivator, though it obviously serves as the catalyst for the film’s events. There are a few misfires, and some of the gags fall flat, but generally speaking your enjoyment of the movie won’t necessarily hinge upon the number of bowls smoked beforehand. Harold and Kumar aren’t the first couple of guys to go “up in smoke” on the big screen, but they may very well be the funniest.

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