John Cho

Smiley Face (2007, Gregg Araki)

Smiley Face is something of an endurance test. How long can the film keep going before falling apart due to its own flimsiness. Thanks to star Anna Faris, it pretty much does make it to the finish. The third act–thanks to the bookending device (the film is told in flashback, narrated by Roscoe Lee Browne, who Faris is imagining talking to her)–lacks momentum but there’s only so much the movie could do. It is just about Faris getting too stoned and messing up her day. There’s nothing more to it.

After Browne introducing Faris, the film flashbacks to her morning. She’s got a busy day–an audition (she’s an actress) and she’s got to pay the power bill in person. So she gets a stoned before starting out, only to get more stoned after she eats her roommate’s cupcakes. Turns out they’re pot cupcakes. Now, Smiley Face does a fine job with the attention span and the erratic hold on reality of a stoned protagonist, but there are some leaps–would Faris actually remain conscious after eating so much pot, would she still be stoned ten hours later as the story wraps up. She narrates most of the first act and implies her tolerance isn’t extreme… but whatever.

During the first act she also introduces the roommate, Danny Masterson; they hate each other and he psychologically terrorizes her. He’s one of the film’s many leaps in logic. He’s there to be a punchline (in Masterson’s case, a repeated, non-emoting one). The most exceptional thing about Faris’s performance is she manages to navigate the film’s anti-character development and succeed anyway.

We also meet her dealer, Adam Brody. Who’s a white guy with dreads. Fake dreads, but it’s not clear if the dreads are supposed to be fake (they’re obviously fake). He’s done giving Faris a free ride on her pot, so she’s got to bring him money at a hemp festival–pre-marijuana legalization pot culture is going to be hard to explain someday soon–see, since she ate all the cupcakes, she needs to make more. And then she’s got to pay the power bill and get to her audition.

Smiley Face uses, occasionally, superimposed text cards enumerating Faris’s tasks for the day. It forecasts the story. Maybe the funniest and smartest thing about the script, as the protagonist is debilitatingly stoned, her to do list ain’t getting done.

Besides a mishap getting on the bus–Faris is too stoned to drive (the film, at least until the second act, is often just showcases for her physical comedy skills)–she basically follows the plan. Though she does burn up all the weed and doesn’t have money to buy any more. The audition, with Jim Rash as the receptionist and Jane Lynch as the casting agent (the film’s rife with cameos, mostly in the first half), is pretty funny. Definitely could’ve gone longer but the film’s already started backing up a bit from being through Faris’s perspective, narrative distance-wise, to being about Faris’s experiences.

Eventually John Krasinski comes into the story–he’s a friend of Masterson’s who has a crush on Faris, which is summarized in a hilarious montage–because she needs a ride and someone who can lend her money to pay Brody. They just need to go to Krasinski’s dentist appointment first.

Things don’t go as planned–actually not a single thing in Smiley Face goes as planned; it’s not really a comedy of errors because things going well doesn’t seem remotely possible. It’s just how is Faris going to screw it up. Though she’s decidedly passive in most of her problems in the second half. For example, when she goes to hide at an old professor’s house and his mom–Marion Ross in a fun cameo–mistakes her for the new teacher’s assistant… well, it’s not like Faris can tell her the truth, not given the situation.

The scene with Ross changes the narrative trajectory all the way to the finish, even though there’s some attempt at acknowledging Faris’s original plans. There are talking dogs, there’s John Cho and Danny Trejo as sausage delivery drivers, there’s a workers of the world unite speech, there’s a ferris wheel. There’s even a Carrot Top cameo.

Dylan Haggerty’s script gets real lazy in the third act. The movie needs to be over and the whole journey aspect has gotten slowed way down thanks to all the narrative tangents. So there’s a perfunctory deus ex machina, which comes early enough the narrative could recover. It just doesn’t. Time for the movie to be over.

The film’s competently executed. Shawn Kim’s photography is fine. Director Araki does a little better with the editing than the direction, but Smiley Face doesn’t need a lot of direction. It just needs Faris to be funny; she obliges.

Supporting cast-wise… Krasinski is best, but only because he gets the most screen time. No one’s bad. Not even Masterson. The film figures out how to utilize his driftwood presence. Cho’s actually a little bit of a disappointment, but it’s the part more than the performance.

Smiley Face is eighty-five sometimes long minutes, but there’s always something ranging from funny to hilarious just on the horizon. Until the finale, unfortunately.

1/4

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Gregg Araki; written by Dylan Haggerty; director of photography, Shawn Kim; music by David Kitay; production designer, John Larena; produced by Araki, Steve Golin, Alix Madigan, Kevin Turen, and Henry Winterstern; released by First Look Studios.

Starring Anna Faris (Jane), John Krasinski (Brevin), Danny Masterson (Roommate Steve), John Cho (Mikey), Adam Brody (Dealer Steve), Marion Ross (Shirley), and Danny Trejo (Albert); narrated by Roscoe Lee Browne.


A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (2011, Todd Strauss-Schulson)

From the title A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas sounds like a TV special, not a 3D movie extravaganza and director Strauss-Schulson feels the need to prove it every four minutes or so. Harold & Kumar often has pointless (if occasionally amazing) 3D set-pieces but they eventually stop.

They stop after writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg find their footing. There’s a big concept to Harold & Kumar this time and it shows why one of these movies should never, ever have a big concept.

But Hurwitz and Schlossberg, during all that problematic plotting, still come up with some hilarious jokes. For the first fifteen minutes, though, many of those jokes fall flat.

The returning love interests make the movie drag. Danneel Harris is incompetent (because she has nothing to do) but Paula Garcés just isn’t funny. She’s got Danny Trejo as her dad, which is hilarious, and she brings nothing to it.

Staying with the acting, Amir Blumenfeld and Tom Lennon are lacking as the new sidekicks. Blumenfeld’s just flat but Lennon misses a bunch of jokes. He brings no edge to it.

Elsewhere in the supporting cast, Elias Koteas is great (but he’s in the wrong movie) and Neil Patrick Harris is, unfortunately, showing his exhaustion.

John Cho and Kal Penn are still both great and they sell the movie’s buddy franchise comedy message.

Oddly, Harold & Kumar not really a Christmas movie, even though it advertises itself as such.

But who cares? It’s hilarious enough of the time.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson; written by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg; director of photography, Michael Barrett; edited by Eric Kissack; music by William Ross; production designer, Rusty Smith; produced by Greg Shapiro; released by Warner Bros.

Starring John Cho (Harold), Kal Penn (Kumar), Tom Lennon (Todd), Danny Trejo (Mr. Perez), Amir Blumenfeld (Adrian), Paula Garcés (Maria), Elias Koteas (Mary’s dad), Danneel Harris (Vanessa), Eddie Kaye Thomas (Rosenberg), David Krumholtz (Goldstein) and Neil Patrick Harris as Neil Patrick Harris.


Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg)

As far as sequels go, Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (huh, Guantanamo isn’t in Apple’s dictionary) is superior to the first. It’s far more absurd and the characters have comfortably become a modern comedy duo. Their adventures are modernized comedy bits, which work due to the movie’s absence of realistic pretense, but where Harold & Kumar is different is in its willingness to discuss race in America.

The humor generally falls into four categories. Kal Penn as a brainless male, getting high, race and the American identity. Even though Harold & Kumar cops out a little when it comes to Bush and his responsibility for American xenophobia, maybe portraying him as a drunk stoner with father issues is more effective (it certainly is in the comedic sense). The script nicely works the comedy into convenient vignettes, a grandiose road movie on a limited budget.

As writers, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg run their characters through a bunch of funny situations, work in flashbacks and dream sequences to great effect (Harold & Kumar is, in the best possible way, something of a live action “Family Guy”), but their directing skills are nil. There’s almost no visual tone to the movie and the effects sequences are atrocious. I suppose they can sit the camera down and let action play in front of it well enough, but their composition makes the movie feel like a direct-to-video teen comedy.

What elevates the movie from that confusion are Penn and John Cho. This time, Penn’s got a love interest, Danneel Harris (big shock, that one’s not in Apple’s dictionary either) and it really helps the movie. Harris is likable, if bereft of dramatic ability, and Penn makes up for anything she’s not bringing to her scenes. Cho’s good as the straight man, but thinking about it after seeing it, it’s sort of surprising just how little he’s got to do in the story. Sight gags mostly.

The rest of the supporting cast varies. Rob Corddry’s funny because of his dialogue, but he can’t actually act. The whole time, I wondered what it’d be like if they’d gotten Domenick Lombardozzi from “The Wire” for the role. It would have worked a lot better. Roger Bart’s weak. Neil Patrick Harris is, no shock, real funny. Hurwitz and Schlossberg write some of the movie’s better material for Harris scenes.

Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay is something more than a cheap diversion, due to that racial humor; it’s a good ice cream. And Hurwitz and Schlossberg are much better at the best pop culture references than anyone else. They really get them into the script naturally.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg; director of photography, Daryn Okada; edited by Jeff Freeman; music by George S. Clinton; production designer, Tony Fanning; produced by Greg Shapiro and Nathan Kahane; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Kal Penn (Kumar), John Cho (Harold), Rob Corddry (Ron Fox), Roger Bart (Dr. Beecher), David Krumholtz (Goldstein), Eddie Kaye Thomas (Rosenberg), Jack Conley (Deputy Frye), Paula Garcés (Maria), Danneel Harris (Vanessa), Eric Winter (Colton) and Neil Patrick Harris (Neil Patrick Harris).


Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004, Danny Leiner), the uncut version

I’m trying to imagine Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle with different leads and I’m coming up empty. The movie works because of John Cho and Kal Penn. With the exception of the absolutely horrible direction by Danny Leiner and the terrible editing–so incompetent I actually need to mention the guy’s name, Jeff Betancourt, because the terrible rhythm of his cuts wounded my retina, Harold & Kumar is a fine way to spend eighty odd minutes. It’s funny and the performances are good and the story never gets stupid–except maybe Ryan Reynolds’s cameo and just his part; it’s kind of like American Pie in its geniality.

Kal Penn gets to do the wacky thing for most of the movie and even though he’s visibly an extremely capable actor, it’s a good choice. John Cho is easier to identify with, positioned as the traditional underdog from the start. It’s actually when the two of them are together in quiet moments, Harold & Kumar starts to lose steam, because their friendship’s unbelievable.

As far as the comedic writing goes–it’s wildly uneven in parts. A long section with a puss-encrusted mechanic serves no purpose, neither does Cho’s CG dream–though the punchline is funny. Cho doesn’t get to be funny–it’s not his role in the movies, doesn’t follow the rules the movie’s established for itself, so when they try, it fails and is boring. Penn’s so much better at it (and his daydream sequence is hilarious).

The supporting cast is all good. David Krumholtz plays a stoned wastoid, which might have been fun but he’s certainly not taxing himself. Neil Patrick Harris plays Neil Patrick Harris and he’s funny. New comedy standard Fred Willard shows up for a bit and he’s funny. It’s all very well-cast (with the exception of Reynolds obviously).

Though the opening’s direction is an abomination (Leiner gets better after forty minutes, stopping with his idiotic fast forwarding, undoubtedly an appalling side effect of digital editing), Harold & Kumar was, from the start, not what I was expecting. Maybe I was expecting that terrible style or whatever, but once it established itself as a comedy about a guy wanting to meet a girl, it was fine. Like American Pie or whatever.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Danny Leiner; written by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg; director of photography, Bruce Douglas Johnson; edited by Jeff Betancourt; music by David Kitay; production designer, Steve Rosenzweig; produced by Greg Shapiro and Nathan Kahane; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring John Cho (Harold Lee), Kal Penn (Kumar Patel), Paula Garcès (Maria), Neil Patrick Harris (Neil Patrick Harris), David Krumholtz (Goldstein), Eddie Kaye Thomas (Rosenberg), Christopher Meloni (Freakshow) and Fred Willard (Dr. Willoughby).


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