The summer of 2004 offered a limited collection of comedies. The best of the group—the shining gems, if you will—were released within the same month, striking audiences like two hilarious sucker punches. The unexpected brilliance began on July 9, when Will Ferrell ascended into the pantheon of comedic deities with his performance in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Directed by Adam McKay, it became an immediate classic on the strength of Ferrell’s performance as a pompous lead anchor with a tragic inclination to read whatever is written on the teleprompter, context be damned. It remains one of the greatest comedies, but another film released three weeks later with even less initial hype has weathered the past decade far better. That film is Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.
On July 30, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle opened in theaters amidst modest promotion, overshadowed by the corresponding releases of Jonathan Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate and the start of M. Night Shyamalan's fall from grace, The Village. Though the comedy was not as lauded, it was the most enjoyable film of the three, introducing viewers to friends Harold Lee (Jon Cho), a put-upon young investment banker, and Kumar Patel (Kal Penn), a brilliant slacker who sabotages his med school interviews, but only because he doesn’t want to be the archetypal Indian doctor. Together, they’re just two twentysomethings trying to enjoy life, one hit of weed at a time.
At the center of Harold & Kumar’s success are two themes: friendship and marijuana. They literally drive the duo on a bizarre ride to the far side of New Jersey in pursuit of sustenance in the form of White Castle sliders to satisfy their munchies. Their journey is derailed by a pit stop for more weed at Princeton University, harassment at the hands of police and Neanderthal X Games rejects, and a chance encounter with the God himself, Neil Patrick Harris. But the primary motifs always prevail, pushing Harold and Kumar towards their goals, both short and long-term.
The film’s unexpected prosperity placed Harold and Kumar among a stoner buddy elite consisting of Cheech Marin, Tommy Chong, Redman, Method Man, and, most recently, Wiz Khalifa and Curren$y. The same reason fans love the Cheech and Chong films, "How High" and the film it inspired, and How Fly is because the stoner buddy comedy reverberates across all mediums. The masses root for the good-natured pothead because there’s a good-natured pothead in everyone. Better yet, even those who don’t indulge are entertained by the goofy adventures that the rolling stoned embark on, often triggered by or in search of more weed. Harold and Kumar have a hell of a night, one that highlights the often unexpected fun of a Friday night when you’re young, but also one that tests the elasticity of their fellowship.
Though Kumar irritates Harold with his immaturity, he uses his mischievous brand of intelligence to get them both out of trouble. For example, when Harold accidentally punches the racist cop while swinging on Kumar, Kumar devises a plan to break him out of jail and escape with the Princeton weed man’s stash. What’s more, Kumar always has Harold’s back, whether it's against the bigoted cop, the douchebag jocks, or Harold’s lazy, manipulative co-workers. Perhaps Kumar’s biggest assist of all comes at the film’s conclusion when he forces Harold to stop being a "Vagina McGinestein" and make an aggressive move on Maria (Paula Garcés), their neighbor who rendered him tongue-tied and utterly swaggerless up until this moment:
Though Anchorman is without question a more pivotal film, it’s these moments—along with Neil Patrick Harris essentially playing Charlie Sheen—that have helped Harold & Kumar age better.
Be clear: Anchorman is an undisputed classic. I recall seeing it opening night with friends, feet up on the back of chairs until Will Ferrell’s star-making turn and the collaborative genius of the Channel 4 news team left us rolling in the aisles in true obnoxious teenager fashion. What made the film an instant masterpiece was the endless stream of quotes that became pop culture treasures. Ron Burgundy’s "I love scotch" admission arguably raised a new generation of scotch lovers. How many invitations to assorted pants parties been offered verbally over the past 10 years? How many references to being in a "glass case of emotion" have been made? Because of Burgundy, we second guess downing milk on obnoxiously hot days and know that leather-bound books and the aroma of mahogany were symbols of affluence during the 1970s.
With Anchorman’s success, Ron Burgundy became one of the most quoted characters in film history, a new face next to Tony Montana’s on pop culture’s Mount Rushmore. But the oversaturation of Anchorman’s one-liners have robbed the film of some longevity and prematurely clipped the wings of its sequel.
Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues had enormous shoes to fill, and Ferrell and McKay made the task more daunting by trying to pick up exactly where its predecessor left off in terms of tone and style of joke. In his review for Roger Ebert’s site, Matt Zoller Steitz called it a "baldfaced rehash" of the first film:
"Many of the first film's now beloved (or notorious) set-pieces get rehashed, including the jazz flute solo, the scene in which Brian Fantana shows off his cologne collection (this time it's condoms) and the bloody battle of the news teams (restaged here with more participants, weirder weaponry, and more guest stars)."
In the nine years separating the two films, the jokes that propelled Anchorman into the realm of elite comedies were pile-driven into the ground. Despite Anchorman 2’s commercial success (nearly $173 million grossed worldwide), it simply isn’t the creative victory the original was. Still, more important than Anchorman stunting the growth of its sequel is how its replay value has been damaged due to a deep penetration of the mainstream. It's hard to enjoy the first film's jokes now that they're emblazoned on T-shirts and have been recited ad nauseam. It’s a case of "suffering from success." The same can’t be said of Harold & Kumar.
Granted Harold & Kumar has spawned two sequels of its own, neither have harmed the original. Though both employ the same narrative structure (Harold and Kumar on some ridiculous mission), they don’t recycle jokes. Harold & Kumar lacks the cultural impact of Anchorman, but it’s benefited from that. This has preserved it, making it more of a beloved cult classic, similar to another revered stoner buddy comedy: Friday. Just like the Harold & Kumar franchise, the Friday trilogy maintains a similar plot line throughout all three films, but it’s never detrimental to the original. The first Friday film remains a moment of standalone greatness, and Harold and Kumar’s wild excursion to White Castle resides in that same universe.
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy was the runaway comedic hit of the summer of 2004, but Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle was quiet money that’s better withstood the test of time. Where Anchorman has ultimately become a victim of its own excellence, Harold and Kumar flew under the radar with an enduring power that the mighty Ron Burgundy hasn’t been able to carry as well on his broad shoulders over the last 10 years. Anchorman’s comedic highs are unrivaled, as the "Afternoon Delight" scene remains an instance of irreverent genius, but Harold and Kumar became the adored "get high" odd couple in July 2004 by identifying with stoner pals everywhere. It rode a simple formula of weed and fraternity directly into the hearts of viewers. The Wilson Phillips "Hold On" scene is far less impactful than the "Afternoon Delight" masterpiece, but it’s one of the year's best cinematic examples of random things you do with your friends, superior to the infamous "A Thousand Miles," white girl anthem scene from White Chicks.
We’ve all been there, and that’s why everyone—veteran smokers, virgin lungs, and all in between—can watch Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle over and over.
Julian Kimble is doing the Pop Culture thing now, but City Guide lives on. He tweets here.