When "The Graduate" hit theaters in 1967, a poster depicted Dustin Hoffman as the quintessential aimless college graduate: "This is Benjamin. He's a little worried about his future."
If every decade has its disaffected-youth films, two unconventional summer movies are adding to the mix with stories of post-college ennui.
"Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle," a stoner grossout comedy about roommates on a burger run, transcends its genre to become a clever spoof on racial stereotyping. (The beleaguered protagonists are Korean American and Indian American.)
Zach Braff's Sundance hit, "Garden State," meanwhile, is a quirky dark comedy about a slacker-actor who is emotionally reborn after returning home for his mother's funeral.
Although the movies drastically differ in tone, both were written by 20-something Jewish authors not so far removed from their own aimless, post-college years. And both began with the frustrations of said authors, who felt contemporary films did not reflect their personal experiences.
"I just didn't feel there had been a movie addressing what it's like to be 20-something today," says Braff, 29, star of NBC's "Scrubs." "I wanted to explore what it's like being that age in 2004, when you're trying to figure out who you are."
"Harold" screenwriters Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, both 26, had similar criticisms while bonding over teen comedies at their Randolph, N.J., high school and later while rooming together in Los Angeles.
"We couldn't relate to most of the protagonists we'd see in youth comedies," Hurwitz says. "They were these good-looking, suave guys, like Paul Walker in 'She's All That,' but they didn't look like us or the people we hung out with. So when we started writing, we figured we'd create R-rated comedies that represented ourselves and our group of friends."
Sitting side by side in a luxurious suite at the W Hotel in Westwood, Hurwitz and Schlossberg seem more like nice-Jewish-boy archetypes than the authors of a film featuring raunchy poop jokes. With affable expressions and hands clasped in their laps, they apologize for using the occasional expletive and for a certain "Harold" joke involving the Holocaust and a starlet's breasts ("I'm embarrassed by that," says Hurwitz, blushing).
They became close friends while serving on their high school debate team; both engaged in "hard-core" cramming for the SATs to secure admission to a top university, which pleased their professional Jewish parents. Hurwitz dutifully went off to the University of Pennsylvania to become an investment banker, Schlossberg attended the University of Chicago to become a lawyer; they scrapped those sensible plans only after their first screenplay, "Filthy," sold to MGM their senior year.
"Filthy" was a grossout comedy featuring culturally Jewish protagonists like Hurwitz and Schlossberg, but the screenwriters wanted "Harold" to be even more radical. They intended the movie to reflect the predilections and ethnic diversity of their social circle, which included Korean Americans, Indian Americans and Jews who had more in common with the protagonists of "American Pie" than "Yentl" or "Bollywood/Hollywood."
"Yet whenever we saw characters like us on screen, they were relegated to stock, stereotypical roles," Schlossberg says. "But we're just like everyone else our age in terms of attitudes and issues."
The screenwriters and their friends liked to talk about women, to watch "South Park," to rip on each other in politically incorrect ways (Hurwitz and Schlossberg were nicknamed "Manny" and "Shevitz"), and to embark upon the kind of munchies quests only people in their 20s undertake. "Harold," in fact, was partly inspired by a late-night, two-hour trek to the Valley, during which the authors braved crack addicts while searching for the perfect Boston cream doughnut.
As for why the main characters are Korean American and Indian American, Hurwitz and Schlossberg thought it would be subversive to create a youth comedy in which the most marginalized minorities were the leads. The film revolves around Harold (John Cho) a put-upon office drone, Kumar (Kal Penn), a rebellious medical school applicant and, to a lesser extent, their Jewish neighbors, Rosenberg and Goldstein (a.k.a. Manny and Shevitz).
"The movie both pokes fun at stereotypes and subverts them, which is unique in this kind of broad comedy," director Danny Leiner says.
For example, Harold is introduced as the generic "Asian guy" but ultimately gets the girl; the Indian Kumar is smart but prefers partying to science; and Rosenberg and Goldstein, far from being studious Jews, are the film's biggest slackers, contentedly smoking dope out of their shofar bong.
The protagonist of "Garden State" is more anguished: the Jewish Andrew Largeman reflects the kind of malaise Braff says he experienced after graduating from Northwestern University and while struggling to make it as an actor.
Of course, it's hard to imagine Braff as angst-ridden, given that by age 26 he had become the star of the hit sitcom, "Scrubs," and didn't have to wait tables anymore. This year, he hit Hollywood gold again when his debut film, "Garden State," sold for $5 million in an unprecedented team distribution deal with Miramax and Fox Searchlight.
Sounding weary but friendly on the phone during a press junket day, he says he wanted "Garden State" to describe "what it felt like for me going home to New Jersey" when he was drifting, in his early 20s.
"Man, I was so excited to get out of Jersey and to go off to college, but when I got there I was incredibly lonesome and scared and confused," he recalls. "That was the first time I realized I was homesick for a place that no longer existed, because my mother had moved to a new house, all my friends had gone off to college and nothing was the way it used to be."
The meandering film eschews the traditional, three-act screenplay structure to enhance this sense of youthful aimlessness and alienation. "If I had submitted it to one of my screenwriting classes, I would have received an F," Braff says.
That, apparently, was the grade the studios gave "Garden State" when it first made the rounds; every one of them rejected the movie, which was eventually financed by an independent producer. Variety called the film "A sort of 'The Graduate'-lite for a generation unacquainted with the original," but Braff feels it offers a unique message for 20-somethings at the millennium.
"It explores how that comforting concept of home disappears when you grow up, and how it won't be in your life again until you create it from scratch," he says.
Both films open today in Los Angeles.
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