Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay & r & & r & by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & found a bit of common ground with two nervously giggling, high-school-looking stoners with whom I shared a theater last Friday morning. We all thought Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay was funny. I didn't expect it, but there it was.

I don't know why they liked it (hazarding a guess: they were both incredibly high) but I know why I did: because, as with the first film, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay is a stoner flick that doesn't have morons at its center. H and K get high, but not because they're dumb or apathetic or losers. Harold Lee is an investment banker. Kumar Patel is headed to med school. Harold's largely apolitical, but he has a sense of justice. Kumar, in an odd way, is the opposite. They're smart and they're young and they're doing things with their lives. They smoke weed -- a lot of weed -- but it doesn't define them. They have too much fratty doofishness, but nobody's perfect.

I imagine Harold and Kumar to be -- minus the obvious ethnic differences -- quite a bit like their creators, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg: upper-middle class kids who went to good schools, have bright futures and who get high (often) to blow off steam.

Hurwitz and Schlossberg have to get high. That's really the only way a film like Harold and Kumar gets written: Dudes sitting around making observations that take two separate forms: "Isn't it funny that ..." and "doesn't it suck that ..." until a script materializes.

In the case of Escape from Guantanamo, for example, the stoner observation "Isn't it funny that girls don't go bottomless the way they go topless?" becomes a scene where Harold and Kumar's college friend -- now a douchey, Miami-dwelling clubber -- bucks a trend of topless parties by holding a bottomless one. When a girl takes a bikini top off, getting completely naked, the friend is incensed, "Hey you, put that back on." Later, "Wouldn't it be funny if Neil Patrick Harris [you know, Doogie Howser] had this fetish where he, like, branded prostitutes with cattle brands?" leads to Neil Patrick Harris, playing himself, eating "like dozens" of psychedelic mushrooms, then branding a prostitute.

That's all funny as hell, but it amounts to typical stoner absurdity, no more funny/imaginative/creative than what you'd find in Half Baked or Road Trip or Super Troopers or, sadly, Grandma's Boy.

What's made the Harold and Kumar films to this point something more than blunted frat dreck is that second line of inquiry, which leads to the film exploring racial and psycho-social elements rare in any genre, and all but absent from stoner flicks. "Doesn't it suck that people assume darkish but not black people are Arab terrorists?" for example, leads to an interesting, oddly nuanced series of events. White people (an old white woman in this case) fear Arab-looking people because that's what they've been taught to fear. On the other side of the coin, meeting real terrorists in Guantanamo, we see the screenwriters think there's absolutely something to that fear: Terrorists are huge assholes who want to kill us.

Which leaves people like Harold and Kumar -- not exactly conscientious, but certainly harmless citizens who share skin pigment with some really bad people -- the subjects of undeserved scrutiny and hatred.

There's a dumb-as-nails love story and a lot of filler, but Guantanamo mostly works, especially when Harris gives the dragging middle section a jumpstart of drug-addled insanity. It ain't "Kumbaya," but in this era of suspicion and hatred, films like Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay give hope that cooler (and maybe higher) heads will prevail. (Rated R)

Vandal Summer Cinema Series

Fridays, Sat., Aug. 21 and Thu., Aug. 26. Continues through Aug. 20
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