One secret of fiction is the creation of unique characters who are precisely defined. The secret of comedy is the same, with the difference being that the characters must be obsessed with unwholesome but understandable human desires. Many comedies have the same starting place: A hero who must obtain his dream, which should if possible be difficult, impractical, eccentric or immoral. As he marches toward his goal, scattering conventional citizens behind him, we laugh because of his selfishness, and because secretly that's how we'd like to behave, if we thought we could get away with it.
I realize this is a lofty beginning for a review about a stoner road comedy, but there you are. The summer has been filled with comedies that failed because they provided formula characters, mostly nice teenagers who wanted to be loved and popular. "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle," on the other hand, is about two very specific roommates who want to smoke pot, meet chicks and eat sliders in the middle of the night. Because this column is read in Turkey, Botswana, Japan and California, I should explain that "sliders" are what fans of the White Castle chain call their hamburgers, which are small and cheap and slide right down. We buy 'em by the bag.
Is a slider worth the trouble leaving home and journeying miles
through the night? If you're stoned and have the munchies, as Harold and Kumar are, and if you're in the grip of a White Castle obsession, the answer is clearly yes. The only hamburger worth that much trouble when you're clean and sober is at Steak 'n Shake. Californians believe the burgers at In 'n Out are better, but that is because they do not appreciate the secret of Steak 'n Shake, expressed in its profound credo, "In Sight, It Must Be Right." (Many people believe the names of In 'n Out and Steak 'n Shake perfectly describe the contrast in bedroom techniques between the coast and the heartland.)
Harold Lee (John Cho) is a serious, bookish, shy Korean-American accountant. Kumar Patel (Kal Penn), an Indian-American, is a party animal whose parents think he's about to enroll in med school. That the dean is played by the benevolent but obscurely disturbed Fred Willard lets you know this process will not be without setbacks. Harold and Kumar are getting stoned one night when a White Castle commercial plays on TV and gives them a slider fixation.