By Owen Gleiberman
Updated July 29, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle: Sophie Giraud

At a glance, the heroes of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle have a lot in common with Bill and Ted, Wayne and Garth, and other youth-movie slacker-hedonists. They say ”dude” a lot, and they’re perpetually on the prowl for great weed and rockin’ babes. The movie, however, has a terrific twist, and the characters’ overt ethnicity is only part of it. Harold (John Cho), an investment banker of Korean descent, and Kumar (Kal Penn), whose Indian family is desperate for him to go to medical school, share a quality the overgrown adolescents in films like this are never allowed to possess: They’re witty, focused, and highly aware. They make having a brain look hip.

Out to score some dope in their native New Jersey, they stop off at Princeton, attending a meeting of the Asian student club, and the hilarious scene that follows is a perfect example of how the movie exploits cultural stereotypes only to transcend them. The bookish losers in the room may be rude caricatures, but they’re a joke, as well, to the stoically acerbic Harold. His attitude is, Get over the geekiness, folks — join the party. Kumar is even more ebullient in his hostility, and Kal Penn plays him with a motormouth as assaultive as Howard Stern’s.

Directed by Danny Leiner (”Dude, Where’s My Car?”), ”Harold & Kumar” takes place over one picaresque all-night-long road trip in which the two stoners search for a White Castle to douse their craving for those luscious little oniony burgers. Their adventures range from the gross (a defecation contest between college girls) to the porno-surreal (a mock horror-film encounter with a boil-laced monstrosity named Freakshow and his nubile wife). They also run into a band of racist punks who look at Harold and Kumar and see a couple of outsiders. The punks couldn’t be more wrong. In its defiantly lowbrow way, ”Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” celebrates the pursuit of pleasure as the grand unifier of America, with everyone in the melting pot fused in burger heaven.