Tracing the circuitous, totally illogical byways of politics on popular culture and vice versa can not only be frustrating but infuriating. Take, for example, Hollywood’s response to the Bush war on Iraq. Sure there have been some excellent films, and even some that are emotionally stirring. James C. Strouses’s Grace is Gone, for example, is a complicated look at the effect of the war on the family of a female soldier who is killed in battle.
What do we make then of Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay? Here is a film so stupid, so blatantly offensive, and so striving to be subversive that it frequently takes chances it doesn’t even seem to realize it is taking. On one level, it satirizes almost everything related to the "war on terror," then trivializes it to the point where it becomes completely ludicrous. It does so with the veneer that everything from defecating to prison rape is not only prime for laughs but, essentially, so politically inconsequential and absurd that in the end nothing matters.
Escape is the sequel to Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, which was the last in a long line of stoner films featuring drugged-out teenage boys getting into trouble because they are too stoned or stupid to know what’s going on. From Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to Wayne’s World to Dude, Where’s My Car, the stoner film has become a mainstay in Hollywood cinema. To a degree it has been moderately political in its own way. The casually sexist Dude, Where’s My Car makes some interesting points about the politics of gender and the stupidity of traditional masculinity. What made Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle interesting (and often funny) is that it faced racial stereotyping head on. Harold (Harold Lee) is a high achieving Korean-American college student who is primed for business success. Kumar (Kumar Patel) is a slacker Indian-American student whose parents want him to become a doctor. They are on their way to the local White Castle where, after many misadventures, they get hamburgers, fall in love, but don’t get "laid."
Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay picks up the next morning with Harold in the shower and Kumar on the toilet when they decide to go to Amsterdam to find the woman with whom Harold has fallen in love. On the plane they get arrested as terrorists and sent to Guantanamo Bay where they are terrorized by prison guards who are going to make them "eat a cock sandwich." They escape and, as the tag line for the film states, "This time they are running away from a joint."
The plot is too ridiculous to relate in its entirety—I’ll leave out the fairly offensive trip to the brothel with Neil Patrick Harris (in a cameo playing himself) as a sexual psychopath—but it does involve being chased by a psychotic CIA agent, having to fake being Ku Klux Klanners, meeting up with incestuous hillbillies with a seriously birth-defected child, and then smoking up with President Bush at his Texas ranch as they are about to attend the wedding of the woman with whom Kumar is in love, who is marrying a right-wing Republican.
But even as the film bashes one aspect of the war on terror after another—racial profiling, the inanities of federal policies, the inhumanities of Guantanamo Bay, the ineffectiveness of government agencies to do anything right, the tossing out of the rule of law (at one point a government agent uses the fifth amendment as toilet paper)—it relegates these critiques to the trash barrel of stupid jokes. It’s not so much a case of writers and directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg being too sardonic or too clever for their own good, it’s that, at some level, they don’t seem to have an actual point of view. At the end of the film George W. Bush turns out to be a stoner who has problems with his father’s expectations—like Kumar. But rather than turn this conceit into something that matters, the film presents Bush not as a ravingly destructive political leader, but as a frat boy who is more than one toke over the line.
Perhaps the most curious part of Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay is that it is obsessed with gay sex, homosexuality, penises, and prison rape. What’s this about? You really have to wonder what the writers and producers are thinking about their target audience —most probably 13- to 16-year-old boys. Does this demographic really want to hear endless jokes about penises and forced blow jobs? What do they think about Kumar saying to Harold—while they are parachuting from an FBI plane on which they have been kidnapped—"Hey dude, are our dicks touching?" Meanwhile, the film has no problem showing heterosexual behavior and women’s bodies in non-humorous situations. Do teenage boys have this much anxiety about homosexuality? Is it all they think about? According to Harold and Kumar, apparently they do.
I think that a more productive way of thinking about the male-male sexual jokes in the film is that they represent a real anxiety about the war on Iraq, the war on terror, and the state of American masculinity—just as In the Valley of Elah was a forceful critique of how American manhood is in essence about death and destruction. Unfortunately, Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay is as aimless and muddle-headed as its eponymous characters who every now and then (through the haze of cannibas) have a bright insight or a sound revelation. It is also a very interesting manifestation of how deeply disturbed our culture is about men, war, sex, pain, and terror.