Crude comedy tackles America's post-9/11 policy

Hollywood has made a comedy that is a 'reaction to post-9/11 paranoia.' The movie hits theaters Friday.

04/25/2008 12:01 AM

07/06/2009 4:58 PM

Will audiences giggle as an old lady shrieks ''Terrorists!'' and triggers panic aboard a trans-Atlantic flight? At guards shown sodomizing war-on-terror detainees in orange jumpsuits? At an American president portrayed as a paranoid pothead?

Ready or not, Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantánamo Bay hits theaters on Friday as mainstream Hollywood's first comedy to lampoon the United States' war on terror.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the entertainment industry was so hypersensitive that oldies radio stations even shelved Jerry Lee Lewis' Great Balls of Fire. Apparently, seven years is enough time to make it safe to skewer White House policy and practices that emerged from the ashes of the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

Nothing is off-limits in this spoof. Not racism. Not sexism. Not drug abuse. Not even detainee abuse. Actor Kal ''Kumar'' Penn told college newspaper journalists recently that the movie is ``a more subversive way of even dealing with stereotypes.''

Part political theater, part heir to the '70s stoner film genre, the story is so politically incorrect it features pot smoking from college campuses to Crawford, Texas.

And in doing so writer-directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg seek to build on the success of their 2004 movie, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, which did poorly at the box office but developed a cult following on DVD and cable.

In the sequel, two all-American dope-smokers are mistaken for terrorists aboard a flight bound for Amsterdam and get shipped off to the Alcatraz of the Caribbean where they escape by raft for -- where else? -- Miami en route to Texas to clear their names.

STEREOTYPES

But where White Castle was strictly stoner slapstick, Escape from Guantánamo is shot through the lens of post-9/11 racial profiling and is packed with nearly every ugly American xenophobic stereotype one can imagine.

Four years have passed since White Castle, in which Harold (John Cho), a Korean-American investment banker, and his slacker Indian-American roommate Kumar get the munchies and go in search of the titular burgers.

Sure, the sequel has the predictable toilet humor and big boob jokes. But the story also includes a dopey Homeland Security officer denying the thoroughly American Harold's request to see a lawyer. The bureaucrat has gleefully -- and mistakenly -- concluded that Harold and Kumar are part of a narcotrafficking al Qaeda-North Korean terror axis.

''Is it freedom o'clock?'' asks Deputy Chief Ron Fox, played by Rob Corddry. ``Guess what? Where you guys are going, they have never even heard of rights.''

Strictly not for children, the rated-R film shows a George W. Bush (James Adomian) who secretly smokes dope, fears Dick Cheney and refers to his showcase prison camp as ``G-Bay.''

Laughter was the goal, screenwriter Schlossberg told The New York Times recently. But, ``I guess in a certain way it's our reaction to post-9/11 paranoia.''

The script casts the Pentagon's model detention center as a netherworld of true terrorists and Kafka-esque innocents whose soldier-guards sexually abuse them.

Almost none of the film takes place in the prison. But the few moments that do take a perverse swipe at the real-life show tours that boast of special foods for war-on-terror prisoners. Rather than ''lemon chicken'' -- part of the detainee diet shown to visiting congressmen and reporters -- guards in the movie force-feed prisoners a different kind of meat.

SCENES

Packed into the film's 102 minutes: U.S. soldiers raping detainees, Jews pocketing pennies, Cubans turning trucks into rafts, blacks playing basketball -- all against a leitmotif of government officers making a mockery of the presumption of innocence because they can't distinguish a pothead from a terrorist.

Quite the turnaround from an entertainment industry that postponed the release of Dave Barry's Big Trouble in 2001 because the comedy was about sneaking a bomb through the Miami airport.

Pop-culture expert Robert Thompson says America gradually got over its squeamishness, through Internet comedy and irreverent Osama bin Laden cartoon characters on shows such as South Park.

It moved on to late-night TV talk-show shticks, defying predictions that ''one horrible day, one horrible attack like that would change the fundamental zeitgeist of our culture,'' says Thompson, who runs the Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

`INTERPRETATION'

Harold & Kumar, he says, is just a reflection of the Bush administration's post-9/11 with-us or against-us wars and politics, which some say squandered global goodwill and alienated some Americans as well.

''What it's trying to do is be a humorous, burlesque interpretation of a bunch of stuff that has happened over the past couple of years that isn't any little bit funny,'' Thompson says.

For the record, the Pentagon is not officially commenting on the film, whose release comes as the Defense Department considers death-penalty charges against six Guantánamo captives accused as 9/11 co-conspirators. A spokesman from the building struck by a terrorist plane on Sept. 11 offered that he saw ''nothing funny about 9/11.'' His bosses denied him permission to be quoted with his name attached.

At the base, meantime, the civilian in charge of entertainment says he thinks the film will be received for what it is -- a comedy -- by the servicemen and women who work at the prison camps and other Navy operations there.

''It's like Dumb and Dumber with Arab-looking guys -- just one of those slapstick kind of things that's funny,'' Craig Basel says.

SHOWING ON BASE?

Whether it will be shown at the base's open-air cinema is up to ''Big Navy,'' he says, the headquarters that determine which films to show sailors at Navy bases the world over.

But don't rule it out. Rendition played there last year.

And if its March debut at the South by Southwest festival is any guide, it could develop a following among the guard force of mostly 20-something sailors on assignment at Camp Delta.

Some 1,200 viewers jammed the Austin screening, where festival producer Matt Dentler declared it ''a huge, huge success with both the audience and its critics,'' particularly with the 18-36 demographic.

''It really brought the house down,'' he says.

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