[Screen It]

(2008) (John Cho, Kal Penn) (R)

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Comedy: After being mistaken for terrorists, two stoner buddies escape from Guantanamo Bay, return to the U.S., and travel across the country in hopes that the fiancé of one's ex-girlfriend can get them off the hook.
Harold Lee (JOHN CHO) and Kumar Patel (KAL PENN) are best friends who, having successfully scored a plethora of burgers at White Castle at the end of "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle," now have their sights set on Amsterdam. After all, it is the "weed capitol of the world" and that sounds good to these two stoners. Besides, it will help Kumar get over the fact that his ex-girlfriend, Vanessa (DANNEEL HARRIS), is now engaged to Colton (ERIC WINTER), while the girl of Harold's dreams, Maria (PAULA GARCÉS), just so happens also to be traveling to Amsterdam.

The two friends don't get there, however, due to an in-flight mishap where Kumar's smokeless bong is mistaken for a bomb and thus they're pegged as terrorists. As a result, they end up in Guantanamo Bay where overzealous Homeland Security chief Ron Fox (ROB CORDDRY) is ready to prosecute the heck out of them, much to the chagrin of Dr. Beecher (ROGER BART), a far more level-headed NSA official. Despite Fox's tactics, Harold & Kumar manage to escape during a prison break and catch a boat ride back to the U.S.

Once there, they realize the only person who can help them is Colton (due to his connections to the Bush White House), but he's about to marry Vanessa in Texas. From that point on, and with the help of various strangers and acquaintances, such as Neil Patrick Harris (NEIL PATRICK HARRIS), the two set off from Florida for the Lone Star State, all with Fox and his feds in hot pursuit.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
I've never been a big fan of so-called "stoner" movies simply because one apparently needs to be "medicated" in order to enjoy them and/or overlook their glaring faults. All of which explains why they usually fail at the box office (since lighting up in a theater can lead to something a bit worse than simply being kicked out of the joint), but often do better once on home video.

Such was the case with 2004's "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" where the title characters (played by John Cho and Kal Penn respectively) get stoned, develop a serious case of "the munchies" and thus set off for the near mythical, titular location. Along the way, they participate in and/or encounter all sorts of outrageous behavior, most notably from Doogie Howser, a.k.a. Neil Patrick Harris playing himself in a move designed to bust that teen doctor character's squeaky clean image.

While there was a smattering of amusing moments to be had, the film was, for the most part, "a dumb, disjointed and occasionally disgusting comedic attempt" (to quote the conclusion of my review for that flick). All of which meant, coupled with the poor ticket sales, that I rejoiced at the thought of having seen the last of the two stoners and their antics.

Alas, you never say never in Hollywood, particularly when the home video market now matches or exceeds theatrical runs. Accordingly, that's resulted in "Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay," an offering unsurprisingly not much different than its predecessor, yet one which earns a point or two for an unusual title as well as some decently outrageous laughs.

Mind you, that doesn't mean it's even remotely nearing the level of smart or sophisticated comedy, but it made me laugh aloud more times than the original, so I guess there's something to be said about that. Like most sequels, this one follows closely in the original's footsteps, not only in terms of the plot outline (road trip flick) and obvious drug humor, but also racial stereotyping.

It certainly ups the ante for the latter by adding Rob Corddry as an overzealous Homeland Security official who operates strictly from an equal opportunity racial profiling standpoint. Yet, beyond a mishap on the plane where Kumar's homemade bong is visually and verbally mistaken for a bomb, little of what's present manages to transcend the skit-like trappings of such material. It's all broadly played so that everyone gets it (especially, one supposes, those stoned at home once the title arrives on video), but that pretty much neuters the sharp, smart and scathingly witty satire it truly deserves.

Most of the effort, however, seeks to appease the target audience. Thus writer/directors Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg offer up all of the obvious drug jokes, copious nudity (female for titillation, male for shock and/or disgust), homophobia (natch, in a jail cell), and gross-out material, including the apparently now obligatory violent diarrhea scene and others featuring various bodily fluids (urine and semen).

As was the case the first time around, the cast and crew try to infuse the titular characters with some charm to make them and their antics easier to tolerate. Yet, unlike the better Judd Apatow films ("40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Forgetting Sarah Marshall"), it isn't nearly as successful here, meaning the pic will only play to its core viewership and likely won't do any sort of crossover to other demographics. And with both Cho and Penn having previously shown that they can do so much more than this, one can only hope they'll retire these characters for bigger and better things down the road.

Amusing at times and sporadically funny in its outrageousness, "Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay" offers up isolated and "better" laughs that its predecessor, but that's still not saying much in the overall scheme of things. The film rates as a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed April 23, 2008 / Posted April 25, 2008

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