“What are the odds that during the first 4/20 after Chicago legalized weed, everyone would be trapped inside?”
“Dumb luck, I suppose,” said Dania. “Although, isn’t the whole month technically 4-20 this year?”
The three sat on the couch, watching the end credits roll on Danny Leiner’s seminal stoner comedy, Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle. They’d wanted to honor the occasion, and watching the film felt like the correct way to do so, short of visiting one of Chicago’s dispensaries.
The silence continued. None of the trio had many immediate thoughts about the film, raucous and caustic as it was. For Dania, who had seen the film in high school, it held up much better than she had expected. Memories of laughing about the hyper-sexual antics of Neil Patrick Harris had given way to more thoughtful appreciation for the film’s commentary on race and freedom.
Eleanor, who had never seen the film before, had more questions than answers at the outset, and only one that could be answered immediately.
She turned to Gwen. “This was your suggestion?” she asked.
Gwen laughed. “Absolutely,” she said. “It’s a great movie, right?”
“I mean…in a sense,” said Eleanor. “It’s great in the way…I don’t know, Mean Girls is great.”
“Which is to say, it is,” Dania pressed.
“Well, I like Mean Girls a little more,” said Eleanor. “That one’s more fast and cutting with its humor. The comedy in this one is more…broad?”
“It’s random!” Dania glowed. “Half the time I have no clue why certain things are happening. The guy walking up while Kumar pees in the bush? What was that about?”
“I don’t know if that’s a point in the film’s favor, though,” said Eleanor. “Can you say a film is great if its appeal lies mainly in the fact that it doesn’t make sense?”
“It makes sense,” said Dania. “Dramatically, even while there’s randomness happening, the central plot thread of ‘we have to get to White Castle’ is always clear. Despite it being so episodic––or, really, because it’s a bunch of small conflicts––it feels fast-moving because the goal is the same: get out of trouble and get back on the road.”
“Exactly,” said Gwen. “Due to the protagonists having such a simple quest, the film makes for an excellent case study in comparing objective and superobjective. Yes, it’s about a trip to White Castle, but the characters have clear emotional arcs beyond that; arcs that are shaped by each obstacle they face.”
“Are they, though?,” Eleanor asked, still confused. “I’ll grant you that the objective and superobjective are clearly defined. All events in the plot are not just diversions on the road to White Castle, but stepping stones in Harold gaining the self-respect to finally tell off his boss and ask out Maria.”
“See, you get it,” Dania said, smiling. “It’s deeper than most stoner comedies are.”
“Sure, but I’m stuck on the idea that the arc is informed by the journey,” Eleanor clarified. “That the events in the plot have some clearly defined relevance to Harold’s journey. The beginning of Act Three, when Harold gives his ‘I want that feeling’ speech, is motivated by his disappointment in all that came before, in total. But within the second act of the film, those disappointments could have been anything.”
“Hmm,” Dania considered. The center of the film ran a gamut of hijinks. The events clearly had domino-path relevancy leading into one another––meeting Neil Patrick Harris leading to him stealing the car, the stolen car leading to jaywalking, jaywalking leading to jail, and so on––but did they each progress Harold’s arc in a meaningful way?
“Some moments make sense,” Eleanor continued. “Harold meeting Tarik and hearing that ‘the universe tends to unfold as it should’ is a direct inspiration to Harold loosening up during Act Three, to take Kumar’s role as the driving force towards White Castle. But was there any thematic relevance in the scene with Freakshow and his wife?”
Gwen took a moment to consider this. The scene, wherein Harold gets his first chance at intimacy following unsuccessful attempts with his neighbor Maria, could be seen as a step towards overcoming his own shyness regarding romance, which would be paid off at the end of the film. Similarly, the center of the film provided opportunities to overcome standing up to aggressors (the scene in the gas station), and putting personal happiness above workplace success (the scene in the hospital). If anything didn’t jibe with Gwen, it was the riding of the escaped cheetah––the film’s only moment that felt fully divorced from thematic progression.
All this film consideration Gwen debated within a few seconds, which was enough time for Dania to jump in with her own answer to Eleanor’s question. “I don’t think everything in the film must have a one-to-one parallel for the moment to work. Right?”
“Well, there’s the question, right?” said Eleanor. “In my opinion, if you’re going to say it’s a great film––I suppose this is a semantic disagreement, more than anything else.”
“I have a response, but I’d like to hear yours first,” said Gwen, looking to Eleanor.
“Thank you,” Eleanor smirked. “This is my question: in order for the film to be considered ‘great,’ does everything in the film’s plot have to directly tie into the thematic journey of the characters? Or does the nature of the film allow for diversions that don’t advance the character arc in specific, measurable ways?”
“Can you translate that, please?” asked Dania.
“Are you allowed to do random things for no reason other than humor, and still be considered a well-written film?”
“Responding quickly to that,” said Gwen, “it likely depends on the style the film is aiming at. If it’s a tightly-scripted living room drama, you don’t want to throw something completely comedic in the center unless you have a good reason. Harold And Kumar is so stylized overall, it can handle diversions like that without compromising the writing tonally.”
“‘Responding quickly,’ yes,” Dania said, with a raise of the eyebrow.
“As for the theming,” Gwen continued, with a glare at Dania. “I don’t think it’s a knock towards the writing if Harold and Kumar’s adventures lack the one-to-one parallel you’re thinking. I might have been wrong before, if I implied that they did. What I meant to say was, simply, each moment escalates the tension in new and creative ways. The film balances a series of seemingly random diversions, while still giving focus to Harold’s ever-growing sense of desperation.”
“I mean, on some level, it makes sense why they end up where they do,” said Dania, cutting in. “The film never cuts to the two of them in a new location without justification. But this is all beneath the surface of what is, for many fans, a simple film about getting stoned and wanting food.”
“It can be art to some, and cheese to others,” Gwen agreed. “Truth be told.”
“All of the theory that Gwen notices is there to make the story move along,” said Dania, “so you can stay focused despite the haze that you’re under. It’s the element that elevates the film to the higher echelon of stoner films: the structure is there, yes, but move beyond that. What the structure is supporting is a story about two very likeable characters, on a simple journey, with new twists around every corner.”
“I suppose there is some artistry to how focused the film feels despite how random the action is,” Eleanor admitted. “I still wish it was a little clearer how each step of the journey changes Harold, rather than how the journey changes him overall.”
“But that ending, though,” said Dania. “You gotta admit that ending is the most satisfying ever.”
“One of the more earned happy endings, I’ll say,” Gwen said. “Even if the girlfriend thread with Maria does come across more as an afterthought.”
“Yeah, they should have closed with Harold telling off the business bros, that’s where the film started,” Dania agreed. “I cared more about him breaking away from work than I cared about him finding romance.”
“Same here,” said Eleanor. “I did enjoy the subtlety of Kumar’s arc, though.”
“Kumar’s arc?” Dania wondered. “Does he have one?”
“It’s understated,” Eleanor observed. “Kal Penn does a good job of making it clear through his reactions––John Cho is better at handling the dialogue, but he does get more dialogue to work with.”
“Wait, what’s his arc, then?” asked Dania.
“About his job, and his decision to actually apply his skills. At the beginning, when he’s doing that med school interview, it’s clear that he’s got the skills to succeed as a doctor, but none of the drive to do so. Throughout the entire first two acts of the film, he’s the one getting himself and Harold out of trouble, through an ability to read the room and react accordingly. The crucial problem, for Kumar, is that he can only apply himself to immediate circumstances. He never plans for the future.”
“As opposed to Harold,” said Gwen. “He’s always planning for the future, and never living for today.”
“Precisely,” said Eleanor. “That division is exactly why Harold and Kumar make such a good comedy duo: they share the same goal, but completely opposing tactics towards achieving that goal. The climax of the film involves both of them taking a page from the other one’s book.”
“So you do think Harold grows during the film,” said Dania.
“I never said he didn’t,” Eleanor added, defensive. “I also never said I disliked the film. My holdup on calling it brilliant is that I wish its ‘random’ humor had more thematic relevance. But judging it on its own, not for what it’s not…it’s a solid stoner comedy.”
“It’s a solid comedy,” Gwen clarified. “Regardless of what you’re smoking.”
“Or eating,” Dania said. She considered her empty stomach. “Do you think White Castle delivers during the pandemic?”
Image Credit: The New York Post