"Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" gleefully upends expectations and delivers an energetic comedy tracing two guys'all-night search for the perfect White Castle burger. Pic's cult potential will translate into tasty theatrical returns and awesome vid scarfing sessions. Pic also promises seconds in the form of a sequel.

Picking up the banner from Cheech and Chong for a new generation of stoner dudes, “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” gleefully upends expectations and delivers an energetic comedy tracing two guys’all-night search for the perfect White Castle burger. What could have just pushed the usual youth comedy buttons is instead a crafty spoof on issues from racial politics to American highway monoculture that belies its cover (and marketing) as only a dumb gross-out laffer. Pic’s cult potential will translate into tasty theatrical returns and awesome vid scarfing sessions. Pic also promises seconds in the form of a sequel.

Although the title might be off-putting to those critical of Hollywood’s yen for product placement, odyssey is stuffed with hazards that completely distract from the lusted-after product. A better indicator of pic’s true nature is the assured directorial presence of “Dude, Where’s My Car?” helmer Danny Leiner, who has now at least equaled that cult hit’s laugh quotient.

Exploited as the reliably workaholic Asian — specifically Korean — office pushover by his superiors, Harold Lee (John Cho) unhappily puts up with his corporate fate and can’t find the right words to say to Maria (Paula Garces), a cute gal neighbor in his building.

By contrast, his roommate Kumar Patel (Kal Penn) shows a more rebellious and assertive nature when interviewing with an overly ingratiating med school dean (Fred Willard, briefly on screen but in classic mode). Though his Indian parents expect the intelligent Kumar to become a doctor just like his older brother and father, he’d rather kick back and light up a nice, fat doobie.

During a nighttime pot-drenched couch potato session, Harold and Kumar get a serious case of the munchies and want “the perfect food.” On cue, a White Castle burger ad appears on the tube, triggering the goofiest case of consumer demand the movies have shown in some time. Kal mistakenly thinks he knows where a White Castle is nearby in their corner of New Jersey, but a series of mishaps — including toll booth flubs and an unintended detour into a bad section of Newark — land the guys in Princeton.

At the university, Kumar tries to score some more pot from an ersatz “hippie” connection while Harold finds himself lured into a hilarious Asian American students association meeting.

It’s already obvious that Jon Hurwitz’ and Hayden Schlossberg’s script is going to be a fairly mad study in placing obstacles in their heroes’ way. Leiner lays out the obstacle course by smoothly pacing and moving this hungry pair from station to station as they scramble around the state.

Several incidents lay the groundwork for an eventual payoff, but the best bits are pure gonzo moviemaking, such as a run-in with the world’s ugliest auto mechanic aptly nicknamed “Freakshow” (a thoroughly unrecognizable Christopher Meloni) and an interlude in a college women’s bathroom where coeds are in a flatulence competition. Twists and turns in this and a subsequent episode where Harold and Kumar pick up a hitchhiking Neil Patrick Harris (as a hornier version of himself) have all the earmarks of storytelling drenched in cannabis smoke — which is just as it should be.

Cho and Penn are an absolutely perfect duo of clowns suited for the young, smart set. After his regular turn in the “American Pie” series and as a modern, conflicted student in “Better Luck Tomorrow,” Cho blends parts of both these roles into Harold, and stands as a winning, charismatic Asian American thesp with real star appeal. Penn is more naturally silly than Cho, but he never upstages his partner while showing brief glimpses of a more serious Kumar under the surface.

Support by a range of actors coming from wildly differing schools of comedy (Willard, Harris, Garces, Meloni as well as David Krumholtz and Eddie Kaye Thomas as H & K’s overtly identified Jewish neighbors) work well. Pic’s colorblind play on race and stereotypes embraces Korean and Indian buddies but also an anti-political correctness.

Bruce Douglas Johnson has a lot of fun lensing in various nocturnal looks and settings, and joins production designer Steve Rosenzweig for a broad, colorful look. Visual effects are on the suitably cheapo side, while music cues dial up ultra-contempo sounds.

Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle

Production

A New Line Cinema release in association with Senator Intl. of a Senator Intl./Kingsgate production in association with Endgame Entertainment. Produced by Greg Shapiro, Nathan Kahane. Executive producers, Joe Drake, Carsten Lorenz, Hanno Huth , J. David Brewington Jr., Luke Ryan. Co-producer, J. Miles Dale. Directed by Danny Leiner. Screenplay, Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color), Bruce Douglas Johnson; editor, Jeff Betancourt; music, David Kitay; music supervisor, Dave Jordan; production designer, Steve Rosenzweig; art director, Bobby Sher; set decorator, Jeff Fruitman; costume designer, Alex Kavanaugh; makeup, Diane Mazur; special effects makeup, Paul Jones Effects Studio; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Kelly Wright; sound designer/supervising sound editor, Jeff Kushner; visual effects supervisors, Bret Culp, Kory Jones; special effects coordinator, John Laforet; visual effects, Reality Check Studios; visual effects and animation, C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures; animation, Heavenspot; stunt coordinator, Jamie Jones; associate producer, Jim Miller; assistant director, Laurie Mirsky; second unit director, Terry Ingram; second unit camera, Eric Moynier; casting, Cassandra Kulukundis. Reviewed at New Line screening room, Los Angeles, June 8, 2004. (In Cinevegas, Los Angeles film festivals.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Harold Lee - John Cho Kumar Patel - Kal Penn Maria - Paula Garces Neil Patrick Harris - Neil Patrick Harris Goldstein - David Krumholtz Rosenberg - Eddie Kaye Thomas Freakshow - Christopher Meloni Male Nurse - Ryan Reynolds Dr. Willoughby - Fred Willard Billy Carver - Ethan Embry

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