George W. Bush: You guys are awesome.
Harold & Kumar: No, you're awesome!
George W. Bush: No, you guys are awesome!
--dialogue from the movie
What is courage? Courage is making a movie called Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay in which George W. Bush is a sympathetic character, especially considering that most of the audience would probably disagree apoplectically with the sentiment. However, that's about as far as it goes, politically; it's about the Global War on Terror to the same degree as Hot Shots! is about the first Iraq war. And, because it's a funny stoner comedy that's the sequel to a popular movie, it's also likely to be the most successful War on Terror movie ever made.
That's not saying much, of course: there has been a glut of movies about Iraq, both fictional and documentary, and nearly all of them have failed both critically and commercially. With the minor exception of Syriana, virtually every movie about the War on Terror, the war in Iraq, or our post-9/11 society has bombed at the box office: Redacted, Rendition, Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of Elah, Grace is Gone, Stop-Loss, The Road to Guantanamo, The Great New Wonderful, Reign Over Me, and even the mindless action flick The Kingdom.
But Escape from Guantanamo isn't really a War on Terror movie, per se, so much as it's a continuation of the first movie's dopily sincere message about how we incorrectly judge people based on their outer appearance. Especially Neil Patrick Harris.
In fact, the title notwithstanding, it's one of the most remarkably faithful sequels you'll ever see, in tone, setup, and execution. In other words, if you liked the first movie, you'll like the second. If you didn't, you won't. Escape from Guantanamo begins about an hour chronologically after the last movie ended, and, after a quick encarceration in Gitmo and a quick breakout, our heroes spend the rest of the movie on the lam (chased by insane G-man Rob Corddry, channeling his inner Jon Voight), finding themselves in brief sketchlike comedic situations. This time, the ultimate destination is Texas, where Kumar's ex is marrying a buddy of Harold's who works for the Department of Homeland Security, who has the power and connections to clear their name.
In the meantime, they do a lot of drugs, see a lot of nudity, run from a lot of scary people, and learn over and over not to judge a book by its cover. It's lucky the two stars are so well-cast, because the movie really rests entirely on their charisma. (Well, that, and the knowledge that a good number of audiencemembers are going to come to the theater bombed out of their mind.) The jokes aren't really political, the situations aren't really satirical, and the social commentary isn't really sophisticated. But it has a happy ending, the guys get the girls, our democracy is preserved, and Neil Patrick Harris fans get all the NPH they could ask for, including a Starship Troopers appreciation that I applauded.
On the other hand, it's not a movie that takes a lot of risks, blazes a lot of new ground, or totally lives up to the promise of its title -- there's a lot of Harold and Kumar, but only about a minute and a half of Guantanamo. Like Albert Brooks's Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, it's funny on its own terms, but it fails to take advantage of the chance to comment meaningfully on the great cultural issue of our time. Every little bit helps, and it's far better that the movie be funny but politically demure than unfunny and politically strident. Still, it feels a bit like a missed opportunity.
The movie's directed by the guys who wrote the last one, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg. Visually, they do a fine job by keeping the camera on Cho and Penn, though some of the episodes could perhaps be spiced up to interrupt the predictable rhythm of the two of them traveling and bickering and then periodically running into a comedic setpiece. The soundtrack is quite good, and very well-suited to the mood. The house was full on opening night, and the entire theater was laughing, which was both a good sign and a big help -- if at all possible, stoner comedies should be watched with other people.
Other than Neil Patrick Harris and a brief scene with Ed Helms, there are no other celebrity cameos, which is actually a good thing, as celebrity cameos are a frequent pitfall of lazy comedy sequels from Wayne's World to Austin Powers. This movie comes by its laughs slightly more honestly. Hopefully they'll be able to stick to their principles by the time the inevitable Harold & Kumar 3 comes around.
And when it does, my buddies and I will definitely be there to see it.