By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 3, 2008)
They say that tragedy plus time equals comedy. In the 2005 film, The Aristocrats, a documentary about the “filthiest joke in the world”, there is a fascinating bit of footage from the 2001 Friar’s Club Roast for Hugh Hefner, which took place just after 9/11. Gilbert Gottfried launched into a bit about the attack. Within moments, he was being roundly catcalled by cries of “Too soon!” Mind you, this was a room full of professional funny people, who make their living off of irreverence. But that was then. I don’t know if I should laugh or cry over the fact that we currently have two films in release that glibly incorporate 9/11 into their titles: Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay and Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? Has the War on Terror been slogging on for that long? Yes, it has.
Back in 2004, a modestly-budgeted stoner comedy, sporting a juvenile title and featuring two unknown leads, became an unexpected cult phenomenon. Arguably, the most surprising thing about Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle was that, between the bong hits, sex gags and scatological references, there lurked an undercurrent of sharp sociopolitical commentary about racial stereotyping in America (for the uninitiated, Harold and Kumar are portrayed by a Korean-American and Indian-American actor, respectively) The movie was gut-busting funny, and in a fresh way. The film’s co-creators, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Scholssberg, now officially turn their baked slacker heroes into a sort of Cheech and Chong franchise for millennials with the release of a politically topical sequel, Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay.
The events of the first movie are referred to as having occurred just “last week”. Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) are excitedly packing their bags for a dream European vacation in weed-friendly Amsterdam. Unbeknownst to Harold, Kumar has smuggled his new invention, a “smokeless” bong, on board their flight. Since it is a homemade, cylindrical device containing liquid, it resembles a You Know What. When a “vigilant” passenger, already eyeballing Kumar with suspicion due to his ethnic countenance, accidentally catches a glimpse of him attempting to fire up his device in the bathroom, all hell breaks loose. Before they know it, Harold and Kumar have been handcuffed by on-board air marshals, given the third degree back on the ground by an overzealous, jingoistic government spook (played to the hilt by The Daily Show alumnus Rob Corddry) and issued a pair of orange jumpsuits, courtesy of the Gitmo quartermaster.
Through a serendipitous set of circumstances that could only occur in Harold and Kumar’s resin-encrusted alternate universe, they manage to break out, and hitch a boat ride to Florida (don’t ask). This sets off a series of wacky cross-country misadventures, mostly through the deep South (imagine the possibilities). As in the first film, the more ridiculously over-the-top and unlikely their predicament gets, the funnier it becomes (it’s kind of like being really, really stoned, now that I think about it; I mean, from what I’ve been told-ahem). Also, as in the previous movie, the duo’s Doogie ex machina appears just in time to lend a much-needed hand, in the person of “Neil Patrick Harris” (played with winking, hyper-hetero exaggeration by, erm, Neil Patrick Harris).
I will admit that my unabashed enjoyment of Hurwitz and Schlossberg’s oeuvre (if I may call it that after only two movies) is a guilty pleasure. Okay, so we’re not talking Coppola or Scorsese here. And I’ll grant you, H & K films can be crass, even vulgar at times; but it’s somehow good-naturedly crass and vulgar, in a South Park kind of way. I see a lot of parallels between Hurwitz and Schlosberg’s work and the output of South Park creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker.
Both teams serve up their social and political satire slyly cloaked by the generally silly behavior of their (literally and figuratively) cartoon-like protagonists. You can get away with quite a bit of subversive anarchy when your polemic is delivered “from of the mouth of babes”. At the end of the day, Harold and Kumar are classic “innocents” at heart, as are South Park’s little potty-mouthed darlings (or the young siblings on The Simpsons, baby Stewie on The Family Guy, etc. etc.). Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay may not be everybody’s bowl of Columbian, but I’ll be goddamned if it ain’t the funniest film I’ve seen so far this year.
I wish I could say the same for the latest from documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), who I like to refer to as “Michael Moore lite”. Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? is an admirably earnest, if flawed attempt by the likeable Spurlock to reach out to the “everyday folks” living in the Middle East and show Americans that they’re really just like us, after all; you know- “people are people”, and all that. Oh, and while he was there, he thought he might get some leads on where Osama’s bin hidin’.
Spurlock’s concept for his new film was inspired by his wife’s pregnancy (their first child). While brainstorming proactive steps he could take to ensure a “safe world” for his unborn, he thought he might start by doing his part to end the war on terror-by helping our hapless government locate You Know Who. Using the gimmicky framing device of an ersatz video game to introduce film segments, we follow Spurlock’s progress as he travels to Egypt, Israel, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco in search of the vox populi (and the slippery tall dude with the walkie-talkie).
With the exception of a few extra-cranky customers, like a genuinely scary radical Muslim cleric with a vitriolic demeanor and a Charlie Manson glare , most of Spurlock’s subjects seem to be expressing a variation on “You know, I really don’t have any truck with the American people, but I do hate your government with the intensity of a thousand suns.” Proving of course, that they really are like us (well, those of us who have been paying close attention for the last seven years). And, naturally, the response to queries on bin-Laden’s whereabouts is usually a shrug and a laugh, or a vague point in the direction of the border they share with a neighboring country.
My favorite answer to that question comes from ahard-scrabbled Afghani tribesman who counters with “Who’s ‘Osama’?” When the interpreter tells him: “He’s the one who destroyed the buildings in America”, the old codger thinks on that for about five seconds, then testily snaps: “Fuck him.” Then, as an afterthought, before turning on his heel to dive back into his motley hut, he adds: “And fuck America”. That’s my kind of guy, a real pragmatist.
There are some other genuinely funny moments that temper the underlying grimness. For instance, a high ranking official in Tora Bora (location of the infamous subterranean HQ for bin Laden in Afghanistan) speaks enthusiastically of his proposed plan to turn the caves into a tourist attraction (I think there’s an idea for a Mel Brooks movie in there somewhere). Spurlock is to be admired for keeping a straight face throughout this particular interview.
Unfortunately , Spurlock’s loses credibility in two specific scenes. The first takes place in Tel Aviv, where Spurlock and his crew are stonewalled (and nearly stoned) by a group of ultra-orthodox Jews (Haredim, I believe, from their clothing). Spurlock mugs an annoyingly self-righteous “why are they persecuting me?” look at the camera while he’s being shoved about; as if he assumes that the viewer will find these angry men with hats very amusing.
Some sects of orthodox Jews are a very strict, closed society and wary of strangers (not unlike the Amish and the Mormon polygamist sect), so naturally they are not going to be too crazy about an outsider shoving cameras and microphones in their faces. What did he expect? I’d like to think Spurlock is smarter than that, especially when the message of his film is allegedly about reaching out to bridge cultural misunderstandings, as opposed to creating new ones.
The other scene that tends to cancel out any good will that precedes it occurs during the Saudi Arabia segment. Spurlock interviews two teenage male students. After giving us the disclaimers that the two interviewees were essentially handpicked (and likely briefed) by the school staff, and that two school officials insisted on being present during the interview, Spurlock precedes to pepper the boys with incendiary questions anyway. The anxiety and fear is quite palpable on the young men’s faces; they nervously glance off camera where the school observers are obviously positioned before answering each question with a variation on “I have no opinion on that.” OK, maybe that is Spurlock’s point; but by this time in the film, he has already firmly established that Saudi Arabia is a draconian oligarchy; what’s he trying to prove by shooting fish in a barrel?
You could call this a mixed review. If you got a kick out of Super Size Me, or his TV series 30 Days, you may be more forgiving of Spurlock’s trespasses in the film. Maybe I’m just being over-sensitive, and others may not glean the same subtext from the particular scenes I found objectionable. To be fair, I did laugh a lot, and as I stated earlier, I applaud the inspiration behind the film. Let’s call it a draw.