Harold (John Cho, or as the trailer calls him, "that Asian guy from 'American Pie'") is an uptight investment banker who is continually dumped on by his superiors. Kumar (Kal Penn, "that Indian guy from 'Van Wilder'") is an underachieving medical genius who doesn't feel the need to join the adult world. To celebrate their Friday night together, the two friends decide to get high and score some White Castle hamburgers. But on the way to the Palace of the Slyders the duo are constantly sidetracked by an abundance of distractions, including racist bullies, Neil Patrick Harris, and a roaming cheetah.
The stoner comedy died a dignified death back in 1998 with the dual release of cult classics "Half-Baked" and the Coen Brothers' "The Big Lebowski." "Harold and Kumar" (IMDb listing) is the first film in a long time to attempt to string together an entire movie out of two guys who have the munchies, which, and this should come as no surprise, comes from the director of "Dude, Where's My Car?" Can you smell the quality ahead?
In fact, "Harold and Kumar" isn't the eyesore all the signs point to, but as a marijuana comedy, there's little to toke on. This is mainly the fault of the two leads, John Cho and Kal Penn, who have managed to work their way up to comedy leading-man status, but both remain deeply unfunny performers. Thankfully, Cho plays the straight man, so he doesn't get a lot of the punchlines, but Penn fancies himself a stoner Ferris Bueller, and his smart-alecky acting is excruciating. Supposed to be the laid back component of the duo, Penn just doesn't look the part, and his acting is labored and tedious. Director Danny Leiner gets a lot of mileage out of Cho and Penn's ethnic backgrounds, so maybe there's a clue why these two actors were specifically picked to guide the jokes. Too bad.
Leiner isn't a mastermind when it comes to delivering quality laughs. For example, "Harold and Kumar" hits 2004's comedic low point in a scene where the duo secretly spy on two gorgeous women in the bathroom, only to watch the women engage in a bowel movement contest. Yes, you read that right. And yes, that horrified feeling is natural.
If you can believe it, the film does recover, but only when Leiner becomes brave enough to let the gags get weird. "Harold and Kumar" follows the exact same plot as "Dude" -- idiots get into trouble while searching for title treasure. Some of the highlights include Kumar's literal relationship with a bag of weed, Harold's problematic run-in with a bored cop, and the final destination of White Castle, which receives its largest cinema endorsement to date, and it's about time. Leiner also peppers the picture with low-wattage cameos, including the film's funniest, yet most self-conscious: an appearance by Neil Patrick Harris ("Doogie Howser, M.D."), who plays himself strung out on ecstasy and in a stripper-feeling-up kind of mood.
Filmfodder Grade: C