John Patterson: Harold and Kumar are blazing a trail for a new breed of Hollywood hero

Comedy stoners Harold and Kumar are blazing a trail for a new breed of Hollywood hero, says John Patterson

Stoners. What are they good for? Absolutely nothing! They spend years adrift on their couches, limbs splayed to all four points of the compass, staring slack-jawed at the TV or playing video games, which for them counts as strenuous exercise. Otherwise they're forever going down on their bongs, sucking up a chamberful of hot, sweet smoke, letting it cool as it bubbles up through the water before unthumbing that carburettor and letting a fat, mind-bending lungful rush down their throats. Cue much explosive coughing, bloodshot eyes, and several more hours of zoned-out stasis and heroic underachievement.

I ask you: Could these people ever run a revolution? Could they bring a society to its very knees and then remake it in their own bleary-eyed image? Fat chance, but the decades-long American paranoia about marijuana is predicated precisely on the notion that that is exactly what the potheads and the weirdos have in mind. The Straights and The Squares and The Narcs and The Man are so convinced that potheads constitute a threat to society that the potheads become rebels, insurgents and anarchists almost by default. And why? Because pot makes the people who don't smoke it even more paranoid than the people who do.

So where better to find Harold and Kumar, the most keen-eyed and satirical of all the pothead duos, than locked up in Guantánamo Bay in their latest film? Because wherever there is idiocy on the part of authority, there you shall you also find Harold and Kumar - stoned to the gills - and they're the only people making any sense.

Over the last few years, the wake-n-bake likes of Harold and Kumar, Bill and Ted, Jesse and Chester from Dude, Where's My Car?, Redman and Method Man in How High, the kids from Dazed And Confused, That 70s Show, the forthcoming Pineapple Express, and pretty much everyone in every Judd Apatow movie have come to resemble a new breed of hero. As harmless but enthusiastic potheads, they constitute an anarchic threat because, well, basically they don't give a shit, can't deal with schedules or squares or assholes or jobs, and wanna be left alone to smoke out.

This is just too much for law enforcement, fun-ophobes, ambitious politicians, bluenoses, and devotees of the Protestant work ethic, so a great pointless war on drugs, even on harmless weed, has been waged for five decades to no discernible deterrent effect. The war on terror draws inspiration from the same paranoid well, and the new Homeland Security infrastructure looks for all the world like a gigantic, hypertrophied version of the Drug Enforcement Agency.

If you want a subversive movie, consider this: Harold And Kumar Escape From Guantánamo Bay says more cogent and pertinent things about post-9/11 America than all the socially responsible and endlessly dreary war on terror movies combined. Sure, it has the usual gross-out moments and gay-panic alerts, shit-and-zit jokes and mucho smokage, dude, but, as with its predecessor (US title: Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle), it also carries an undercurrent of jokes about America's transformation into a "post-racial" society, where it becomes harder and harder to say what an "American" looks like.

Asian-American Harold and Indian-American Kumar fetch up at GitMo after Kumar produces his scary-looking "smokeless bong" on a flight to Amsterdam. An old white lady - who has already hallucinated an image of Kumar dressed like Bin-Laden - mistakes the word "bong" for "bomb" and all hell breaks loose. This brings them to the attention of the racist head of Homeland Security (Rob Corddry), who sees all non-whites as foreigners and who at one point proudly wipes his ass on the Bill of Rights. He thinks he's found in Harold and Kumar the wet dream of Homeland Security paranoids: a working alliance between Al Qaida and North Korea, and his racist outbursts soar high on wings of idiocy and extremism. It's easy to tell who the villains are, and most of them are white.

But it's not just some spasm of reverse racism. Everybody's stereotype is up for display and for demolition. Harold accords with the perception of Asian-Americans as "the model minority" - hardworking, studious, and something of a control freak ("Don't fuck with my presets," he tells Kumar in White Castle when the latter fiddles with his car radio. To which the freewheeling Kumar replies, "Dude, your whole life is on preset!"). Kumar doesn't accord with any particular stereotype of equally industrious Americans of Indian ancestry, being eternally horny, party-hearty and in no hurry to take up the medical profession he's so gifted in. Their Jewish neighbours Goldstein and Rosenberg tell some of the sickest Jewish jokes I've ever heard. When asked how good Katie Holmes's breasts look in The Gift, Goldstein offers this: "You know the Holocaust? OK, the exact opposite of that!"

Elsewhere in both movies, other stereotypes are upended: the looming, scary-looking black guy turns out to be a sweet-natured dentist; the Klansman has a tastefully appointed, Architectural Digest-style home; and when Homeland Security pedantically question Harold's parents in Korean, they respond - surprise, surprise - in perfect, unaccented English.

Harold and Kumar are the latest in a long line of pothead-rebels that stretches all the way back to Cheech and Chong, and there is a broad similarity between all of these stoner duos. They're all hedonistic innocents, living before the Fall in the Garden of Weeden, but The Man won't leave them be. They're so puppyishly devoted to one another that you wouldn't be surprised if they slept innocently in the same bed, like Laurel and Hardy or Morecambe and Wise.

If they and the countless stoners of recent movie history have a political outlook, it is essentially live-and-let-live left-libertarianism, alloyed with disdain and pity for those too uptight to get down. But if there's one thing that can bridge all manner of irreconcilable differences, it's Sweet Lady Mary Jane. Ever since Cheech and Chong got narcotics cop Stacy Keach high in Up In Smoke, one of the stoner genre's most predictable rites - like the gunfight in a western - is the moment when the villain gets stoned. Method and Red lace the dean of Harvard's brownies with pot to remind him he's still a black man, H&K go to GitMo achieves a new pinnacle in this area, in that they toke up and smoke out with Dubya, the priznit himself. And it's Dubya who's holding the killer buds. Their stoned interlude ends with choruses of, "Dude, you're awesome!" "Nah, you guys are awesomer!" Imagine what pot could achieve for the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Like it or not, marijuana is as American as apple pie and as old as the young republic, as How High, the finest stoner comedy of all, reminds us. In the final sequence - don't ask how - the ghost of Benjamin Franklin, founding father and hemp farmer (just like George Washington) is summoned from the dead to demonstrate his 200-year-old, self-designed super-bong, which he calls his "Liberty Bong" and a sly connection is thus established between the live-free-or-die-trying/don't-tread-on-me mentality that gave birth both to America and that zonked-out stoner on the couch. Even the film's Al Gore-alike US vice president (a sublime Jeffrey Jones) happily huffs his share of Ben's bong hits.

As Franklin urges, in the spirit of comity and goodwill to all men, "Light that shit, smoke that shit... and passssssss that shit!" That's a prescription for unity for all you heads on the couch, luxuriating beneath your overhanging blue-grey fug of pot smoke.

· Harold and Kumar... is out now


John Patterson

The GuardianTramp

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