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The Interview - This Is What We're All Getting Worked Up Over?

Bob Chipman | 2 Jan 2015 12:00
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The Interview is a decent enough comedy, but it's going to be remembered as an oddity in years to come.

Released December 24th. Stars: Seth Rogen, James Franco. Directors: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg. Distributed by Columbia Pictures. The distribution company provided an advance screening of this film.

the interview poster

I wonder if someday we're gonna have to explain to generations not yet born why The Interview is remembered as a big deal. A middlebrow bromance comedy ostensibly riffing on the spy genre but mainly coasting on the reliable screen chemistry between one of modern Hollywood's great comic actors and its greatest gonzo self-promoter, it's a goofy confection designed to be a holiday distraction in theaters before finding its true purpose as an endless cable TV fixture.

But now, blamed as it's been for calling down the wrath of North Korean hackers on the Sony corporation, pulled then un-pulled from theaters and viralized on social-media, The Interview has become a geopolitical lightning-rod the viewing of which has been cast by some as a righteous stand for Free Speech... which I suppose only makes sense in an era where deciding to "like" a certain post makes an alarming number of people decide they're Martin Luther King.

That's not to say that a movie -- comedy or otherwise -- can't say or do or mean important things. China Syndrome helped change outlooks on nuclear power. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was called anti-American at home for depicting a corrupt Congress and then too American abroad for making democracy look functional. Hell, A Charlie Brown Christmas obliterated the aluminum-tree industry.

But that kind of topical nudging is not really a game The Interview is playing. If it was, it wouldn't be centered around North Korea -- a country the U.S. isn't currently at war with that most Americans know basically nothing about outside of the pop-culture snarking about the notorious weirdness of the Kim family.

Yes, it's theoretically edgy to make a comedy about assassinating a sitting foreign leader, but in terms of actual satiric "teeth" doing it to Kim Jong-Un is about as geopolitically-meaningful as a movie about assassinating Skeletor. That's not to say it isn't "funny" -- of course it's funny! At this point Seth Rogen, James Franco and (director) could probably stage a reading of Night, Mother and make it "funny." Just maybe take a step back before acting like buying a ticket for what amounts to a long-ish version of what could've been a Family Guy cutaway puts you on-par with rescuing banned books from the Nazis.

Anyway. The premise finds Franco as a goofy talk-show host and Rogen as his producer figuring they've found their claim to legitimacy when North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un turns out to be a fan and consents to an interview. Their plans are waylaid when they're interrupted by the CIA, who want them to use their interview as an opportunity to assassinate the dictator.

The Interview James Franco Seth Rogen

It's a clever setup, as these things go, mostly because it affords ample opportunity for Franco and Rogen to riff off the standard "spies preparing for a mission" sequences. Things actually get a little bit less interesting once the plot moves to North Korea, mainly because the inevitable beats become way too clear way too soon: Obviously, Franco's dopey, egomaniacal spacecase will at first be won over by Kim Jong-Un's propaganda so that we can see comical scenes of them hanging out. Obviously, Rogen's long-suffering straight-man will endure various physical and emotional indignities as he struggles to complete the mission. Obviously, Kim will show some humanity -- but not too much. At this point, you can probably even predict that the film will manage to end in a big Michael Bay-esque action blowout, because these collaborations are mostly about Rogen & Pals having a good time and why wouldn't they want to play Rambo if all those army props are already on-hand?

To its credit, the film does try its level best to not make too much light of the dire situation in North Korea itself. The jokes are aimed squarely at the absurdity of the regime itself and at the "everybody knows" tropes of modern-day dictators. Still, razor-edged satire this is not -- a lot of it feels like the "research" part of writing the script involved an intense evening of Google-searching facts about the nation and its history... after the rest of the film was already written. Let it be said, though, that Randall Park turns in a genuinely good performance as Kim and Diana Bang steals a lot of scenes in a (mostly) serious role as a soldier with a guilty conscience.

Of the leads, Rogen acquits himself the best: He's always had surprising range as his generation of comics goes. Franco is obviously having a good time, but there never seems to be much difference between his character's unctuous on-camera persona and the real thing. Maybe that's the joke -- this guy really is this shallow and obnoxious -- but if so it's a mistake to try giving him pathos en-route to the third act.

The Interview is not nearly as funny, cutting or thoughtful as it could've been nor as its unexpected current stature would imply. But of all the films to become a geopolitical third-rail... this? Really? Strange world.

Bottom Line: An amusing curiosity, and worth seeing for fans of those involved. But not worth starting a war over.

Recommendation: It's January. You're lucky anything watchable and new is coming out.

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