Despite seeming like another low effort gross-out comedy, the first Harold And Kumar film is really something special.
Throughout the history of modern cinema, stoner comedies have been, if you’ll pardon the expression, the ‘butt’ of the joke. The likes of Cheech And Chong and Dude, Where’s My Car? often equate the genre with being immature in tone, lacklustre in presentation and more often than not a vehicle for outdated, bad faith humour.
However, the spectrum of quality is actually more diverse than it might initially seem. Acclaimed filmmakers such as the Coen Brothers and Richard Linklater are arguably most notable for their contributions to the world of stoner comedies, with cult classic The Big Lebowski and coming-of-age masterwork Dazed And Confused respectively.
And then there’s the Harold And Kumar franchise…
From the outset, this may seem like just another half-baked, low effort gross-out franchise that found a space in the multiplex in the early 2000s. And while it is entirely fair to argue that the series eventually sunk to that disappointing level, 2004’s Harold And Kumar Get The Munchies is (or Harold And Kumar Go To The White Castle elsewhere in the world) – I’d argue – one of the best and most progressive Hollywood comedies of the 21st century.
It may seem far-fetched, but lying beneath the predictable toilet humour, bloodshot eyes and wild antics is an intelligent critique of racial stereotypes and a love-letter to the Asian-American experience.
The film started out as the brainchild of writing partners Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, and the original inspiration supposedly came from a bit part played by eventual leading man John Cho in the teen movie classic American Pie. Towards the opening of the film, Cho makes a brief appearance as a drunk teen who comments on the attractiveness of another character’s mother by chanting ‘MILF’ at a framed photo of her.
Hurwitz and Schlossberg noted Cho’s character (credited simply as ‘MILF Guy #2’) in their DVD Commentary track of Get The Munchies as being one of the first instances of an Asian character in a teen movie who isn’t boiled down to a reductive stereotype, and someone who reminded them of a mutual friend of theirs called Harold. They realised that actors like Cho and Kal Penn (eventual Kumar and previous star of the Van Wilder series) were easily the most charismatic and funniest actors in these films, but never played the leads, only relegated to no-name cameos.
From there, the framework of what would become Harold And Kumar Get The Munchies was born.
The opening of Get The Munchies plays directly into the common tropes and structure of the films that Cho and Penn frequently featured in. Note how we don’t open on either of our titular heroes, but on Billy and J.D., two of Harold’s co-workers. Their major conflict for the film is generic and cliched: going out drinking to get over a breakup, dumping their extra work on their co-worker claiming they’re too busy to get it done themselves.
Hurwitz and Schlossberg stated that these characters were supposed to represent the white protagonists that’d normally be the focus of the film, highlighting how unrelatable and horrible those kinds of guys really are. This point is proved by how they justify their lie to themselves by insinuating that Harold would be grateful for the extra work… because he’s Asian.
In a lesser film, this would be Harold’s only scene and would amount to a cowardly punching bag to make the ‘real’ protagonists look like cool bad boys. We’re introduced to Kumar in a similarly tropey setting: an interview at a prestigious medical school that he was referred to by his father. His interviewer, played by the late great Fred Willard, seems to overextend himself to seem as progressive as possible despite very obvious racist faux-pas.
Kumar plays this scene cool, casually answering his phone and speaking very graphically about his plans to smoke with Harold that night, admitting that he planned to sabotage the interview because he doesn’t care about being a doctor. Whilst Harold feels trapped in the stereotypes that surround his life, Kumar actively tries to disrupt those expectations as much as possible despite his talent.
We’re later introduced to Harold and Kumar’s neighbour Maria, who serves as Harold’s love interest and who shares his love of romantic movies.
It’s easy and not unfair to criticise this film for not being particularly feminist in it’s portrayal of female characters, they’re all relatively one-note and that hasn’t aged too well. But an interesting counterpoint to that argument is the inclusion of Sixteen Candles, a romantic film that Harold particularly enjoys.
Sixteen Candles, regarded highly in terms of its pop culture status, is infinitely more egregious with its gender and racial politics. This is for one very simple reason: every female character in Get The Munchies gives verbal consent and clear interest in every sexual encounter, unlike Sixteen Candles, which all but romanticises misogyny and sexual assault. It’s not a particularly high bar to reach, but even compared to something like Transformers: Age Of Extinction, gender politics is still a touchy subject for many male writers. Furthermore, need I mention the poster boy of all ignorant racial stereotypes that is Long Duk Dong? Hurwitz and Schlossberg said in their commentary that they originally planned to show scenes of the infamous character in the film to highlight how far representation has come, but weren’t allowed due to copyright issues. However, the mere mention of Sixteen Candles reinforces how nuanced the diversity in Get The Munchies is in comparison, as the former film is shrugged off as a meaningless cheesy rom-com.
As Harold and Kumar set off on their journey, they get severely side-tracked and encounter many colourful characters along the way, including, but not limited to: neighbours Rosenberg and Goldstein, a gang of extreme sports enthusiasts, a group of Asian math students, a maniacal redneck and his repressed wife, a bigoted moustachioed cop, an incarcerated Black man (Tarik) and Neil Patrick Harris.
What’s interesting is that aside from Rosenberg, Goldstein, the math students and Tarik, each of these characters are an over-the-top caricature of white people, playing directly into every cliché imaginable, to highlight just how ridiculous stereotypes are. The inclusion of Neil Patrick Harris clearly references society’s impression of former child actors as aimless drug addicts and womanisers, which couldn’t be more misrepresentative of Harris’ real life if it tried.
Hurwitz and Schlossberg commented that the extreme sports guys were a response to the culture of ‘EXTREME DUDEBROS’ in the late 90s that featured in seemingly every advertisement, which inadvertently fuelled toxic masculinity and racism. Kal Penn states in his commentary track that their use of Apu from The Simpsons’ classic catchphrase ‘Thank you, come again’ was a constant frustration in his childhood as it glorified insensitivity to ethnic minorities, and he was glad that Harold and Kumar get revenge against those guys and use the catchphrase back at them when they steal their truck.
Conversely, Rosenberg and Goldstein are Jewish stoners that mirror Harold and Kumar’s lifestyle and personalities and are also not defined by their religion as they go on a similar adventure themselves. The maths students come off as nerdy losers but are revealed to be hardcore party animals. Tarik confidently espouses his innocence whilst giving Harold, who was arrested by the incompetent cops, the central piece of philosophy needed to fulfil his arc: don’t get mad, get even.
At the climax of their journey, Harold and Kumar are faced with the challenge of hang gliding over a cliff to reach their beloved burgers and escape the cops. Kumar gives an impassioned speech to a nervous Harold, solidifying the true intent of this film. He expresses how they are both second generation Asian immigrants and how their parents faced similar struggles in their journey to America and that they, like their parents, cannot give up.
After soaring through the air and tasting the forbidden fruit of White Castle, Harold confronts his co-workers from the opening of the film, who themselves are experiencing the climax of their own theoretical movie. Harold berates them for being shallow, pathetic meatheads that don’t deserve the respect he gives them, finally completing his arc and becoming a new man. This journey is an analogy for what made Harold and Kumar’s wonderful lives possible and it shows that the passion for what you want: be it to escape racial persecution, the determination to follow your dreams or even just to sink your teeth into delicious food… is the core ideology of the American dream.
Since the film’s release, John Cho has enjoyed a fabulous career in film and TV as a vocal advocate of positive Asian-American representation, citing Harold Lee as one of his favourite roles. Kal Penn went on to star in the Van Wilder spinoff The Rise Of Taj as well as roles in House and Designated Survivor, his work as Kumar clearly showcasing his natural talent. Boasting these wonderful comic performers and a confident message, Harold And Kumar Get The Munchies should go down in history alongside The Big Lebowski and Dazed And Confused as one of the most creative, hilarious and prescient stoner comedies of all time.
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