A stoner comedy has food for thought

Stereotypes are the stars in `Harold and Kumar'

Moves: On Screen/DVD/Video

July 29, 2004|By Tess Russell | Tess Russell,SUN STAFF

The stars of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, John Cho and Kal Penn, have more pressing matters to discuss than their potentially impending stardom.

"Do you think Tobey Maguire is the draw for Spider-Man? Or do you think it's just that it's Spider-Man?" the 32-year-old Cho asks his 27-year-old co-star. "Do you like superheroes?"

"Yeah, I like Superman a lot," Penn responds.

"Superman? Really?" Cho looks offended. "Because Superman has always been my least favorite superhero. So he can do everything ... what's so great about that? Spider-Man is a human being. Now that's compelling!"

The real-life exchanges between the actors are much like those between the characters they play in Harold and Kumar, a stoner movie cum social satire that has led to the two being touted by the Hollywood Reporter as a "multicultural Bill and Ted."

Cho plays Harold Lee, a Korean-American investment banker incapable of standing up to his colleagues or starting a conversation with his love interest. His uptight workaholic proves an interesting contrast to Penn's Kumar Patel, a hard-partying, Indian-American med school applicant who never takes himself too seriously.

Harold and Kumar follows the roommates as their munchies send them on an adversity-ridden quest for hamburgers, specifically those from the White Castle chain. Racist cops, skateboard hooligans and a rabid raccoon are a few of the challenges the pair must face before they can satisfy their hunger and get what each of them really needs -- in Harold's case, the ability to assert himself, and in Kumar's, inspiration to settle down and get serious about his future.

Cho and Penn seem so at ease as Harold and Kumar that viewers may believe that they're not really acting. The Korean-born, L.A.-bred Cho, who graduated from University of California at Berkeley and is best known for his work in the American Pie movies and Better Luck Tomorrow, must be serious and focused. Penn, a New Jersey native and UCLA alum who caught his big break as a sidekick in Van Wilder, has got to be a cocksure comedian. Right?

Not quite, say the pair. Cho explains, "When we first came on set, everyone, including us, thought I was more like Kumar and Kal was more like Harold, so that was a constant source of amusement. Kal's a little more cautious, a little more likely to think things through, than I am. But the weird thing is that I became a lot more like that -- more like Harold -- by the time we finished making the movie, and Kal loosened up a lot."

That may be true, but Penn certainly seemed to be channeling Harold's drive when discussing his plans for the future. He's slated to appear in a diverse group of films: a romantic comedy, A Lot Like Love; a dark independent drama, Dancing in Twilight; and a sequel to The Mask. He would also like to work as a producer and even run for office later in life.

For his part, Cho hopes to "cover all the major genres -- to do an astronaut movie, a Western, a romantic comedy, a hardcore drama." His coming projects are Synergy and See This Movie, plus an NBC series, Men's Room, set to air this fall.

Right now, though, they still have their hands full with the promotional tour for Harold and Kumar, which they say has been "amazing" and "interesting." They talk about New Line's plans to distribute White Castle hamburgers on Sunset Strip and in Times Square, and about their hopes that audiences will not only laugh at the film's gross-out gags (of which there are many) but will also respond to its more serious undercurrents.

Penn discusses this deeper element of the movie: "The film might be set off by the hamburgers, but it's really this American road movie about the journey of two friends, and it manages to subvert racial stereotypes in a way that is humorous, but it is not the traditional stereotypical humor that we've seen a million times before. And hopefully if the film releases the way it's been testing, it will show studios that what New Line has done -- that is, feature two leads in an all-American story who have tended to get more of the sidekick roles in the past -- is awesome."

Adds Cho, "We hope that the film will not only be the beginning of a new phase in our careers but that it will bring new opportunities to all of the people that look like us."

The deceptive smartness of the script also attracted some accomplished actors to make cameo appearances in the film. "These guys -- these actors like Christopher Meloni [from Law and Order: SVU and HBO's Oz] -- certainly didn't need the money, because we had a pretty low budget, and they didn't need the credit," Penn points out. "So it was so cool that they saw something in the script as actors and as artists that they connected with ... and having them on board helped us to accomplish what we wanted to with the film, which was to tell a funny story for a good summer comedy but to also put some of the social commentary in there."

And ultimately, says Cho, the film is effective because of that balance. "There is social commentary -- on race in this country, and on cops and the legal system -- but it never dampens the laughter," he notes. "I feel like the film is a great dance song with good lyrics. The beat's always there and you can dance to it, and if you want to you can listen to the words. But you don't have to."

For film events, see Page 31.

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