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MOVIE REVIEW

'Harold & Kumar' aims low, but achieves a high

The Harold (John Cho) in "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" is an uptight Korean-American investment banker. Kumar (Kal Penn), his Indian-American roommate, is an epic slacker who's obviously smart but would do anything to avoid applying to med school. By "anything" I mean get stoned, which he and Harold apparently do a lot. When we drop in on them getting high, a TV ad for White Castle seduces them into the car -- the announcer talks about the mini-burgers using the porned-up breathiness of certain 976 ads.

When they can't find a White Castle in their New Brunswick, N.J., neighborhood, a simple jaunt for slyders stretches into a Garden State odyssey that ends up capturing the feeling of being bored and nonwhite in New Jersey. Silliness is the movie's only ambition, but there's something mind-blowing about seeing a fratty comedy through two pairs of Asian-American eyes, particularly when those eyes belong to actors who were token minorities in other dumb comedies, Cho in "American Pie" and Penn in "Van Wilder."

To the best of my knowledge, Harold and Kumar are the first Asian-Americans to carry a widely marketed US movie -- a fact that elevates this grubby little flick to event status. This, despite neither guy adequately sticking up for any of the other humiliated minorities in this movie.

"Harold & Kumar" was lackadaisically directed by Danny Leiner, who also guided Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott from mishap to mishap in 2000's "Dude, Where's My Car?" That movie has clearly spawned this one -- two stoners on a surreal journey -- and both are "stoopid" comedies, albeit disingenuously so: They're knowingly inane.

Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, two 26-year-old first-timers, wrote the screenplay, and what they lack in Asian cultural authority -- their presumable stand-ins aren't Harold and Kumar but the pair of bong-hitting Jews down the hall -- they make up for in brand-name marketing savvy. White Castle is the movie's Oz, so the tie-in is beyond egregious, but the road-movie search is quaint.

Yet like every misbehaving, frat-minded comedy since "American Pie," "Harold & Kumar" has an undercurrent of homosexual panic. There's a band of extreme sports-loving rednecks who swear H and K are boyfriends, and one nightmare scenario offers an unfulfilled orgy with a mechanic (Christopher Meloni) whose face and neck are covered in boils. Still, our heroes' leap into a full-throttle car-radio sing-along to Wilson Phillips' "Hold On" might be the gayest scene of the year.

Cho has a sharply withdrawn comic style. His Harold is so pent-up that Cho's whack at a primal scream, sometime after the actor Neil Patrick Harris, playing himself high on Ecstasy, steals his car, feels cathartic. He and Penn are very good together, occupying the void between Cheech and Chong and Oscar and Felix. Penn's Kumar could become Jeff Spicoli for the generation of college kids who've never seen "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" but always seem to have a copy of "Dude, Where's My Car?" cued up at a moment's notice.

At one point in the movie, Harold and Kumar wind up at Princeton, where Kumar tries scoring girls and pot while Harold is buttonholed by a perky girl (Siu Ta). She runs the East Asian club, whose members are wildly obsessed with his investment banking experiences yet have a healthy enough wild side to throw a raging kegger. A new universe of university life feels up for the skewering.

This is one of the only movies to reflect certain absurd realities of college life in an era of multiculturalism and affirmative action: No matter how much things change, kids will still want to rip off their shirts and swing them around while dancing on a table. Stoners and party animals are creatures that know no color.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle
Directed by: Danny Leiner
Written by: Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg
Starring: John Cho, Kal Penn, Eddie Kaye Thomas, David Krumholtz, Siu Ta, Christopher Meloni, Neil Patrick Harris
At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs
Running time: 90 minutes
Rated: R (language, sexual content, drug use, crude humor)
***

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