I’ve written before about how much I love this movie (the sequels, not so much) but it’s not for the absurd comedy and stoner jokes. There’s more to this movie than you might notice, especially if you’re high, and let’s face it, when you watched it, you were probably high.
Despite this, Harold and Kumar is a great absurdist comedy, with excellent story structure and character development. Yes, it has NPH, Chris Meloni covered in boils, and a cheetah going for it too, but follow this logic.
Story Structure: H&K has near-perfect story structure, a retelling of the Hero’s Journey that would make Joseph Campbell proud (and very confused). They leave their Ordinary World–one where Harold is bullied by coworkers and longs for his neighbor Maria, and Kumar resists his father’s demands and destiny to become a brilliant doctor–to search out the prize that will make their lives complete: White Castle Sliders.
Along their journey through fearsome New Jersey (brave the Parkway…if you dare) they meet Allies and Enemies (Freakshow, The Extreme Kids, Bradley the Hippie Dealer, Neil Patrick Harris on Ecstasy, overenthusiastic suburban cops, the cheetah, etc), suffer terrible ordeals (NPH steals Harold’s car, the cheetah breaks Harold’s laptop, Harold gets thrown in jail…all the bad things really happen to Harold), but come out stronger and transformed at the end, defeating their enemies, both within (Kumar and his inner fears) and without (Harold’s coworkers). They return to their home in Hoboken transformed. Kumar is ready to go to med school, and Harold finally makes a move on Maria.
The prize at the end of the Hero’s Journey: you know you want it
Good story structure is more than just the hero’s journey. H&K open several absurd side plots, but manage to close every one of them. The cheetah escape reported on the news later gives them a ride. The two guys that look like them in Newark show up at the hospital. Bradley is in jail when Harold gets arrested, Bradley’s pot is used to frame and arrest the Extreme Kids, NPH returns the car and pays for their Sliders, and so on.
But wait, there’s more. While Harold and Kumar are having their adventure, their neighbors Rosenberg and Goldstein are having a parallel adventure off screen. This is important, and adds a new level of depth to the movie.
Character Development: Both Harold and Kumar change drastically through their journey. Harold begins as timid and paranoid. He ends as–while not exactly bold–a braver human being, standing up to his rivals and claiming his heart’s desire. Kumar begins as a boorish slacker. Despite his incredible aptitude for medicine, he refuses to do anything besides get high all day. By the end, he realizes that he was resisting for the wrong reasons. He was afraid that he’d be another sterotyped Indian doctor, but to paraphrase him, there are worse things I could be than a great doctor. Plus how cool was saving that guy in the hospital?
Oh yeah, they saved a gunshot victim’s life in the hospital (where they went to get medicinal marijuana)
False Moral: There’s also a false moral in the story, a technique that you don’t often see. While Harold is in jail, he encounters a black man who casually tells him that he was arrested and beaten for being black. When Harold asks how he can be so calm about it, the man says that he’s been harassed by idiots all of his life, and it’s not worth getting upset about. The universe usually works out as it should.
It sounds like it’d be the moral of the story, but it’s a trap. If Harold was to take the man’s advice, he would still be the timid, passive man he was at the beginning. The man was a “shadow mentor” on the journey. Instead, Harold sees an opportunity to beat his enemies and takes it, stealing The Extreme Kids SUV and asserting himself against his coworkers.
Allusions: Remember when I mentioned Rosenberg and Goldstein? Here’s where they come in.
H&K is clearly an absurdist comedy, and alludes to one of the greatest absurdist comedies: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Like in H&K, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are part of a parallel story, the background to Hamlet. Rosenberg and Goldstein (note the similarity of names) play a similar role.
There’s something else. In the beginning of R&GAD, they flip a coin repeatedly, and it keeps coming up heads. That’s a signal to both the characters and the audience that something is wrong with reality. This prepares the audience for the absurdity to follow (though not nearly as absurd as H&K). Early in H&K, Kumar drops the scissors he’s using to trim his pubes. It lands point down and doesn’t fall. Similar to the coin flips, this is a signal that something very strange is about to happen.
Yes, I believe that this was intentional. No, I’m not high.
Why is all of this important (Besides reviving NPH’s Career?: It’s fairly simple to make a stoner comedy. Get a bunch of people high and send them on a misadventure. It sells. People like this stuff. Cheech and Chong made a career out of it (their movies are so freakin’ bad). Adult Swim made a phenomenon out of it (most of it good). But you can still have a stoner comedy and make it well-written. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle is proof that no matter what the genre, a good story will always prevail.
Also, who doesn’t love White Castle?