By Kiko Martinez
It seemed like New Line Cinema created a simple enough marketing strategy for its most recent stoner comedy, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. The idea was to identify the two main actors, John Cho and Kal Penn, not by their names but by their ethnicities and most popular film to date. And so the preview trailer goes: "New Line Cinema presents ... that Asian guy from American Pie. And that Indian guy from Van Wilder..."
"My first reaction was that I was kind of offended," Penn told the Current during an interview at the Driskill Hotel in Austin. "The movie is not about that. In fact the movie is supposed to dismantle stereotypes, so why is the trailer like that?"
Cho, who is originally from Seoul, South Korea, also felt nervous about the production company highlighting his race as an advertising ploy, but understood why it was being done. "We both had some trepidation about that campaign," he said. "But it does say exactly what people are thinking. It addresses the attitudes towards race in the movie. The trailer really does get people on board. It's affectionate and humorous."
With the play on cultures cemented as part of the PR, Penn suggested they also include Harold & Kumar director Danny Leiner's ethnic background. "The movie takes race and flips it around," said Penn. "For the humor of it, because I wasn't sure if it was obvious enough, I recommended that they add, 'From that white guy that directed Dude, Where's My Car?'"
Director Leiner accepted it as a perfect fit. "I thought it was a good, fun way to bring out the movie. We just took it one level further and added 'the white dude.' I thought it was funny."
With the racial trinity complete, Cho, the actor that defined the term 'MILF' in the 1999 blockbuster comedy American Pie, and Penn, who portrayed Taj Mahal Badalandabad in the 2002 Van Wilder, were set to do something they had never done before - carry the lead roles in a feature film. As minorities, this was something Cho and Penn had been anticipating since beginning their careers in the mid '90s.
"Sometimes I don't feel like I even have to answer that question," Penn said when asked whether having minority actors in lead roles is important to the entertainment industry. "Even if there are actors of color on television and movies they're not substantive roles. Here we are playing the lead roles. People are actually following our characters."
Cho, who will star in The Men's Room, an NBC comedy pilot written and produced by Danny Zucker (Rosanne), agreed with Penn. He feels that actors like him are often overlooked. "It's a myth that there aren't enough minority actors for lead roles," he said. "They're just not cast. I think `casting directors` actually believe that they are not out there and fool themselves into thinking that. But they haven't looked. It's a cycle that hasn't been broken before. But no one is courageous enough to do it."
Penn pointed across the hotel mezzanine to first-time screenwriters John Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, co-authors of Harold & Kumar: "Those guys were."
Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, one of the few R-rated films to hit theaters this summer, follows two 20-something roommates, Harold Lee (Cho) and Kumar Patel (Penn), who find their greatest pleasure when they are toking up marijuana in their cluttered apartment. After smoking blunts one evening, the Cheech and Chong-like duo decides that the only meal that will cure their munchies are White Castle burgers, although the 24-hour restaurant is miles away.
Harold and Kumar's quest for the tiny burgers turns into a misadventure when they run into rabid raccoons, college girls with digestive problems, and actor Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser, M.D.).
Cho, who had tasted White Castle burgers only once and liked them primarily because he was "having drinks at the time," was amazed at the final film product. "When I first saw the movie I was like 'Wow, that really does make sense,'" he said. "It was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle in the dark and then turning on the light and going 'Oh! It's a lighthouse!'"
Penn, a vegetarian who ate soy burgers disguised as White Castles, was particularly pleased with the script, which he described as "solid and amazing ... To see the final product shot felt really good. It looked exactly like I saw it in my head when I read the script. I felt really proud to bring these characters to life." •
Harold & Kumar is satisfyingly surreal
Those who buy tickets to Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle should know what they are getting into: The title recalls Dumb & Dumber. The director brought us Dude, Where's My Car? But audiences may be surprised to find it funnier than expected. Like the special type of burger that drives the plot, this film hits the spot - the funny bone.
The scriptwriters created a magical blend of the everyday and the surreal. Harold and Kumar embark on what might seem to be the most typical of college experiences: getting a late-night snack to quell the post-spleef munchies, only to have bizarre obstacles and distractions thrown in their path. These latter-day Odysseuses suffer from easy-to-identify-with problems: Harold is getting dumped on by his coworkers at a job he doesn't particularly like. Uptight, he can't seem to improve his situation. Kumar, pressured by friends and family to become a surgeon, can't decide what he wants to be when he grows up. In the end they make unsurprising decisions, but only after a very wild night.
The movie tries to confront minority stereotyping by casting ethnic actors as prototypical American college students, as indeed they are at universities across the country. Kal Penn (Kumar), who debuted as a heavily stereotyped foreign exchange student in National Lampoon's Van Wilder, here works to successfully undermine typecasting. At the same time, many stereotypes are brought up for sport, such as when during the credits sequence, the oppressed black professor makes a denigrating comment about another minority.
The movie gets funnier as it warms up. Although a few of the gags were drawn out longer than they needed to be, even the most cliché of them had an extra naughtiness that prompted exclamatory and even tear filled-laughter. Very little of the acting is over the top. Not to say that this movie will be a life-changing experience, but it may be a couple of weeks before you can get the phrase "Thank you, come again," out of your head. •