Last semester I wrote an essay on Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle and its satirical yet positive portrayal of Asian Americans in 21st century Hollywood cinema. Believe it or not, when I told my professor about my subject she thought I would be condemning the flick. Quite the opposite.
Well, I got a 95 on it, which means A) It’s probably a good paper B) John Cho and Kal Penn made an offer to my professor she couldn’t refuse, or C) She didn’t read it. I’m going with C, but I’ll let you be the judge as I’m giving you the entire essay right here.
I took the liberty of making some edits. Nothing drastic, just removing some of the MLA citations so you folks don’t get burned out reading a bunch of numbers in parenthesis. Who wants to read that? Seriously, college professors. Get real.
In the summer of 2004, New Line Cinema released Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle to critical and commercial success. This stoner comedy follows one night in the lives of two twenty-somethings, Harold and Kumar, and their midnight road trip in a quest to satisfy their hunger while running into (and from) trouble along the way. The movie’s success has spawned two sequels, Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay in 2008, and the yet-to-be released A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas, due in early November. The franchise’s success has been attributed for several reasons: its irreverent humor towards drugs, sex, and popular culture, the show-stopping performances by Neil Patrick Harris, and perhaps most importantly, the subversion of Asian-American stereotypes. The franchise’s unique approach that separates it from usual Hollywood fare is the casting of Asian-American males in the lead roles; a fountain spring for the series’ comedy is society’s racism and its archaic existence in the 21st century. The series’ first film was lauded by critics as a surprise summer pleaser, film critic Stephanie Zacharek of Salon commending how it “stretches the boundaries of offensiveness in ways that both make us laugh and make us think.” Its refusal to adhere to fictitious portrayals of ethnic demographics while still maintaining dignity in mainstream movies is a feat not to be ignored. Although imperfect, Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle is a textbook example of stereotype subversion in Hollywood.
The success of the first Harold & Kumar movie, logistically speaking, shouldn’t have happened. A comedy starring Korean-American actor John Cho (“Harold”) and Indian-American actor Kal Penn (“Kumar”) achieving box office success could not have been possible just few years prior, but the movie did just that in 2004. Joseph Turow’s Media Systems in Society describes that industry executives use “track record talent” to minimize risks. The entertainment business uses headlining acts, or “stars,” that people are familiar with in order to maximize audience attendance, profit, and to ensure success. According to Turow, track record talents are used to relax executives’ anxieties that their creation is palatable for audience tastes. “Production firms assure their clients that if a creator has succeeded in the past with targeted viewers, listeners, or readers,” Turow writes, “there is a strong chance the audience will accept him or her once again.” John Cho and Kal Penn were not Hollywood superstars until well after the film’s release. John Cho starred in successful but independent movies such as Better Luck Tomorrow, and a bit role in the American Pie series in a tertiary-ish role whose character inadvertently submitted the colloquial term “milf” into American pop culture lexicon. Kal Penn regularly acted in raunchy, late-night comedy movies portraying cartoonish Indian stereotypes and had few movies on his resume before success in 2004. Neither actor carried the reputation of being a huge box-office draw, but the film’s producers took that risk, and now exists a popular film franchise.
While Asian male leads are still uncommon in Hollywood today, the subgenre of late-night and stoner comedies can trace its origins to a particular duo of non-Caucasian performers. The infamous Cheech & Chong starred in Up in Smoke, a gigantic box office success, grossing over $40 million during its release in 1978. Cheech Marin, a Mexican-American, and Tommy Chong, a half-Chinese half-Scots-Irish Canadian-American, are hailed as legends in comedy and are regularly cited as inspirations by many performers today. Up in Smoke’s success, however, is attributed more to the notoriety of the duo, already performing for ten years prior and their popular pro-marijuana viewpoints than their skin color, an advantage not afforded by Harold & Kumar. White Castle was the first film to feature John Cho and Kal Penn together, and neither were full-fledged comedians.
Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle begins in a New Jersey investment firm, two office workers hanging out in their private office, both of whom are Caucasian. They shirk their responsibilities for the weekend and leave the burden on straight-laced, hard-working Harold Lee. At the same time, Kumar Patel, a brilliant but lazy college graduate, screws up his medical school admissions interview set-up by his domineering father. The two seek asylum in their apartment later that night and smoke Kumar’s supply of marijuana, soon prompting a hunger unlike any other. A television commercial for White Castle kick starts their after-hours run to satisfy their craving. Upon finding the nearest restaurant chain has been closed, they drive even further into the night enduring all kinds of challenges along the way. By the end of the movie, they will outrun Princeton University police, get attacked by a wild raccoon, their car stolen by Neil Patrick Harris, hitchhike with a hideous mechanic, try to get Harold out of jail, and be harassed all night by white, racist, punk skateboarders.
The movie introduces the titular characters in seemingly stereotypical roles, yet upon further viewing their roles are almost completely subverted. Larson states that the harmful stereotypical images “tend to be one-dimensional, reducing the person to a singular characteristic.” Harold, a Korean-American, is shown as a hard-working professional yet subservient, unable to refuse the forced workload put on by his office mates. While Harold does not fully fit into the “model minority” stereotype, it does frame his character well enough for the audience to be familiar. As Larson describes, the stereotype describes nerdy “academic overachievers without social skills … scholarship winners without romantic attachments” (72). Kumar jokes about Harold’s life, saying that his “whole life is a preset.” For Harold Lee, only part of the stereotype is true. Harold is most definitely an overachiever, being an investment banker at a relatively young age. However, the movie soon introduces Maria, literally the girl next door, and Harold’s crush. While he is far from involved in her life, exchanging extremely few words early on, he does show romantic interest and she reciprocates. He is just too nervous to make the first move. Harold’s social skills are competent; he and Kumar live together without much grief and have several friends living in the same building. He is invited to a lot of parties by Cindy Kim, a girl whom they speculate has a crush on Harold. Harold works hard but he also has some fun, a far cry from Sixteen Candles’ Long Duk Dong, and demonstrates more than one-dimension as Larsen believed stereotypical roles do. In an ironic twist, Harold’s favorite movie is Sixteen Candles, which was criticized for its negative portrayal of Asian stereotypes. However, Harold is not as outgoing as his best friend, Kumar.
Kumar Patel also subverts stereotypical Hollywood conventions of Indian-Americans, and those too often share the same characteristics of other Asian-Americans. Kumar is a young college graduate showing promise as a brilliant doctor, having passed his MCAT exam with great ease. During his medical school interview, however, he easily deprioritizes those prospects in favor of leisure, and horrifies the interviewer with his unprofessionalism and open use of marijuana. Kumar, despite his intelligence, is a slacker, and only attends interviews to entertain and milk his overbearing father for rent money. Much like Harold, Kumar subverts Asian-American and Indian-American stereotypes, possessing proficiency in his studies but lacks the motivation to take action. These three-dimensional portrayals are characters, they are not stereotypes for a joke or the amusement of the audience. They are characters, and by the end of the movie they will learn from their mistakes and grow into better people.
The film movie showed its ethnic-yet-domesticized lead characters positively, and the movie was lauded for such an endeavor, however it is not perfect. Online film critic Jay Antani spoke highly of the film, calling it a “whacky, racially refreshing breather in Hollywood’s white-dominated, politically over-correct bummer of a mainstream culture.” However, the movie has its blemishes, competence as a truly innovative comedy film is irrelevant here. The true issue in this particular case is whether it did accurately subvert all stereotypes, and unfortunately it can only do so much in a running time of less than ninety minutes. While the film did try with their main characters, certain jokes could not be ignored. For example, Harold later attends Cindy Kim’s Asian cultural club meeting in Princeton, and Harold is the black sheep in a yellow sea, the term “yellow” being used intentionally. Harold is surrounded in a room of model minorities, a nightmare of Larson. One character, portrayed by comedian Bobby Lee, is the prime example of the trope, with parted hair and uncool attire, raising his hand enthusiastically just to ask questions, surely a habit from his days of being a bright student in school. It can be argued this scene was used for comedy and to polarize how Harold feels no matter where he is; he is Asian among whites, and white among Asians. Still, the image can be too damaging for one sensitive to the subject.
Other stereotypes run amok throughout the movie. Although one could forgive the film for its intention was comedy with 21st century flavor, it could also cause further damage to the media illiterate: a black man jailed for being black (sic) is harassed by police for carrying a gun (he’s carrying a book); Asian females at a college party flash their breasts for a share of weed, perpetuating the hypersexuality of Asian females; Maria, a 21st century subversion of “The Dark Lady” (Berg, 76) is a female object for Harold’s consumption, given very little dialogue to deliver and exists solely as motivation for Harold, a man. A dream sequence also satires Latino stereotypes, casting Harold as a Zorro-like hero and lover.
Perhaps damaging of all, and somewhat ironic, is the negative stereotyping of Caucasian males in the movie. The villains who stand in the heroes’ way are the racist Caucasian hooligans and authority figures who abuse their dominating power and lead the audience to root for the oppressed Harold and Kumar. While this comedy is meant to ridicule the fabric of oppression, it may also hinder progress of understanding. Very few Caucasian males are on the heroes’ side, and the majority derails Harold and Kumar’s journey. A grotesque, Jesus-loving mechanic appropriately named “Freakshow” is shown as strange and straight out of a slasher-movie, and is the only one who helps the two in their time of need (and later threatens them anyway). Although the heroes eventually befriend a fictionalized version of beloved actor/singer Neil Patrick Harris, nicknamed “NPH” who has become a mainstay in the franchise, he was initially a nuisance to the heroes upon his introduction late in the first film. NPH steals Harold’s car goes off on a reckless joy ride, picking up strange and loose women much to the dismay of Harold. Barbara Arrighi argues that the inclusion of white males in discussions of racial oppression increases understanding of the complexities of the issue. To exclude them, the white males, obstructs the pursuit for equality, and could lead the oppressed groups to hypocrisy.
Finally, in the third act of the film, the fetishizing of American consumerism and the quite-literal pursuit of happiness is described in a tongue-and-cheek, yet somehow heartfelt soliloquy by Kumar. On the run from police, they have stolen a truck driven by the white extreme-sports punks and have stopped at a cliff, the White Castle visible on the horizon. Embedded within the monologue are racial stereotyping and romanticizing, painting a picture of common yet true immigrant struggles in the United States:
So, you think this is just about the burgers, huh? Let me tell you, it’s about far more than that. Our parents came to this country, escaping persecution, poverty and hunger. Hunger, Harold. They were very, very hungry. They wanted to live in a land that treated them as equals, a land filled with hamburger stands. And not just one type of hamburger, okay? Hundreds of types with different sizes, toppings, and condiments… That land was America! America, Harold! America! Now this is about achieving what our parents set out for. This is about the pursuit of happiness. This night … is about the American Dream! Dude, we can stay here, get arrested, and end our hopes of ever going to White Castle. Or, we can take that hang glider and make our leap towards freedom. I leave the decision up to you.
Describing the American dream using the words “escaping persecution,” “hunger,” and “pursuit of happiness” has become a cliché in pop culture, yet somehow it is a stereotype that is acceptable to be taken seriously and parodied without backlash. The movie is about two outsiders, shunned and oppressed for what and who they are, and their desire for solace in an American castle of consumerism – a White Castle – to satisfy their hunger for acceptance, all the while overcoming obstacles and sharing a few laughs on the way.
An over analysis of a 2004 commercial comedy centered on fast food and marijuana may or may not be necessary, but one cannot ignore the positive effects the film had on American popular culture. While there is still a notable lack of Asian lead actors and actresses in American entertainment, signs of progress are showing. The success of White Castle has skyrocketed the careers of both actors into the mainstream. In 2009, John Cho portrayed Hikaru Sulu in J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi summer blockbuster Star Trek with tentative plans to return for the sequel, and was given an extended role due to his popularity on the albeit short-lived ABC prime-time television series Flash Forward. Kal Penn was a series regular in the FOX television drama House until 2009, when he served in the Obama administration as Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. Currently, he is playing a new character on the current season of the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, starring fellow Harold & Kumar cast mate Neil Patrick Harris. Paramount to this, due November of this year is the third installment of the Harold & Kumar franchise, A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas, now a proven success starring Asian-American lead actors, now track-record talent, yet still aiming for that low-brow humor that made the movies famous. It is unknown at this time if the films’ portrayals of stereotypes have improved, but the acceptance of John Cho and Kal Penn, two Asian-American actors, into mainstream American entertainment is a victory against the fabric of oppression.
Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, a stoner comedy about two friends in search of happiness, was a legitimate box office hit upon its release. The film’s subversion of cultural and ethnic stereotypes, while flawed, still went further to improve social stereotyping and managed to succeed than other films of its era dared to do, before or since. America is craving for something new, and the different flavor Harold & Kumar provided is satisfying the taste of the general populace.