Film Review: “The Interview”

Seth Rogen recently gave an interview about “The Interview” – the self-described “very silly” film he stars in and co-directed with his long-time creative partner Evan Goldberg – to George Stephanopoulos of “Good Morning America.” This interview took place shortly after the massive hacking of Sony that was an apparent retaliation against the film, which depicts an assassination attempt against North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. During the interview, Stephanopoulos asked Rogen if, like the trashy talk-show producer he plays in the film, he has ambitions to do more serious work in the future. This was his response: “The conversation our characters are having in the movie is the conversation me and the people I work with do have — which is, although the public clearly has an appetite for garbage, how much of that garbage should you provide them with? And how much should you try to insert something that is a little bit above garbage in your garbage?”

Having now seen “The Interview,” I can report that, however flawed it may be, it is undeniably better than garbage. Although, judging from the film’s Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic ratings – which as of this writing, currently hover around the 50 percent mark – many critics would disagree with my assessment. For example, Scott Foundas in Variety writes that it “should feel like a kind of terror attack to any audience with a limited tolerance for anal penetration jokes … An evening of cinematic waterboarding awaits.” Similarly, Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal states, “Watching ‘The Interview’ is torture from almost start to finish.”

However, among the members of the general public that have watched the film after Sony reversed its original decision to cancel, and gave it a limited release online and in independent arthouse theaters – after major chains opted out of showing it – the response has generally been much more positive. “The Interview” has become a cause célèbre, and an affirmation of constitutionally guaranteed free speech among the audiences who defied the Guardians of Peace hackers’ terrorist threats, as well as North Korea’s alleged attempts to force censorship in the U.S. American flag-waving and other sorts of patriotic cheerleading have accompanied many screenings of “The Interview.” (It must be noted here, however, that despite the FBI and the U.S. government pointing the finger at North Korea for the Sony hack and terrorist threats, a growing number of cyber security experts have serious doubts about North Korea’s alleged involvement, and official statements from North Korea itself deny being the source of the attacks.)

I come down somewhere in the middle of these two extreme poles of opinion on “The Interview.” Though I can’t really defend it as a great work of art, or even a great comedy – and as Rogen’s above quote indicates, even the film’s creators don’t defend it as such either – I did find it quite funny in places, and the relentless gags, often centering around male genitalia and bodily orifices, hit just about as often as they miss. To call “The Interview” a satire is largely a misnomer; it’s more of an outrageous farce that incorporates geopolitics into its orbit of silliness. This approach to its comedy, rather than attempting a more sustained, coherent, and truly incisive attack on its targets, is ultimately what holds “The Interview” back from being the truly great comic work it could have been.

The plot of “The Interview,” befitting its unabashedly low comedy, is almost absurdly simple. It opens with an adorable North Korean girl, with a broad grin on her face, singing a “death to America” paean that features such lyrics as, “May you drown in your own blood and feces … May your women all be raped by beasts of the jungle, while your children are forced to watch!” The camera pulls back to reveal that she is singing in front of a large crowd at a state monument, as CGI rockets explode in the air behind her. This is followed by a series of brief news reports detailing North Korea’s latest nuclear tests.

After this, we land on the set of “Skylark Tonight,” a trashy, sensationalistic talk show hosted by its smarmy, grinning namesake Dave Skylark (James Franco), a sort of Barbara Walters meets Perez Hilton. Running things from the control room is the show’s producer, and Dave’s best buddy, Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen). This early scene is one of the film’s strongest, in which that night’s interview guest Eminem (in the first of a number of image-tweaking celebrity cameos), very casually comes out as gay. “I’m shocked no one’s figured it out by now,” he deadpans. He goes on to detail how he’s been dropping hints in his lyrics for years: “I’ve pretty much been leaving a breadcrumb trail of gayness.” After this bombshell instantly goes viral, Dave and Aaron celebrate at a surprise party in Aaron’s honor celebrating his 1000th episode. Afterward, however, he’s humiliated by an old journalism school classmate with a prestigious position at “60 Minutes,” who tells Aaron he’d be “eaten alive” if he ever tried to work among the serious journalists at that program.

Soon after this, Dave excitedly shows Aaron an article he’s just read about North Korea. Dave tells Aaron to scroll past “all the concentration camp shit” to point out what is to him the most important passage: a tidbit at the end where Kim Jong-un cites “Skylark Tonight” as one of his favorite television programs. This gives Dave the idea to pursue a one-on-one interview with Kim, one he believes will be a ratings bonanza for the show, and will also fulfill Aaron’s desire to do more serious material. Though Aaron is reluctant at first, he soon warms to the idea, and shortly thereafter, he’s on the phone arranging a meeting with Kim’s representatives, for which they insist that he trek to a remote region of China.

When he finally makes it to the meeting area, he gets his first look at Sook (Diana Bang), a North Korean propaganda minister who will be his designated liaison to Kim Jong-un, and who sets the terms for the interview: Dave will only be allowed to ask questions prepared in advance by Kim’s people. Sook is introduced stepping off her plane in slow-mo, wearing a uniform with knee-high boots and maintaining a ramrod military posture. Aaron, needless to say, is instantly attracted to her, and because of this, he agrees to her terms despite his misgivings. (Though she doesn’t show it then, Sook is attracted to Dave as well, and this pays off later in one of the film’s funniest scenes.)

Right after Aaron returns to the States, the CIA comes calling, in the form of Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan), who catches Dave’s eye, and in a sense becomes Sook’s American siren counterpart. Lacey, on behalf of the CIA, asks the two men to do them a solid: to kill Kim Jong-un while they’re in North Korea. Aaron is instantly opposed, claiming that Lacey is trying to use her attractiveness to seduce them, or, in his words, “honeypotting” them. Dave chides Aaron for his sexism in suspecting Lacey: “It’s 2014. Women are smart now.”

However, they both decide to go along with the plan, going to North Korea armed with a CIA-supplied adhesive strip laced with ricin, which Dave is supposed to administer to Kim while shaking his hand, transmitting a slow-acting poison that should kill him some time later. After a grand ceremonial greeting at the Pyongyang airport, they are introduced to Kim Jong-un (Randall Park), who reveals himself to be a grinning man oozing charm who, unlike Agent Lacey, actually succeeds in seducing Dave, at least for a time. In a succession of scenes clearly inspired by Dennis Rodman’s North Korean adventures, Kim takes Dave along drinking and partying, cavorting with lots of scantily clad and topless girls. (Kim says conspiratorially to Dave at one point, before introducing his harem of beauties, “You know what I get tons of? Pussy.”) Kim feels comfortable enough around Dave to let his guard down and reveal his issues with his father, including having to suppress his love of margaritas, because he was told they were “gay.” Dave begins to identify with Kim, and to sympathize with him. “They hate us ‘cause they ain’t us,” Dave reassures Kim. Dave then refuses to go along with the assassination plot. Aaron accuses Dave of letting himself be “honeydicked” by Kim, and decides to take matters into his own hands. Things proceed rapidly from there, culminating in a bloody denouement that takes more than a few cues from Tarantino’s revenge fantasies, a la “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained.”

It shouldn’t be underestimated how truly audacious the premise of “The Interview” is. Depicting the killing of a sitting head of state identified by actual name is no small matter, as the filmmakers and Sony learned conclusively. Earlier films satirizing murderous dictators distanced themselves somewhat by giving their targets different names, as in Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator”; turning them into cartoons and puppets, as in “South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut” and “Team America: World Police”; or making them non-specific composites, as in Sacha Baron Cohen’s “The Dictator.” And even though Rogen claimed to Stephanopoulos that “The Interview” is “very silly and wasn’t meant to be controversial in any way,” that’s being more than a little disingenuous. You can’t do what they’ve done in this film and not expect, or even invite, an intensely negative reaction from its target.

However, I’m not arguing that “The Interview” is in any way comparable in quality to the other films I’ve just mentioned. Though it is often quite funny, it largely fails at satire because of its general lack of imagination, and ironically given its outrageous premise, by not going far enough politically. Each time the film seems to be going in a direction of being truly subversive against either the U.S. or North Korean governments, it retreats into the safe area of dick and butthole jokes, for example in an extended gag involving Aaron having to conceal a drone-delivered object … you know where. “The Interview” also frequently indulges in the jokey homoeroticism that have become Rogen and Franco’s stock in trade onscreen and off-screen (for example, in their parody of Kanye West’s “Bound 2” music video and their appearance on the reality show “Naked and Afraid.”) Once again, just as the movie seems about to become more truly cutting in its humor, it regresses into these same patterns of shtick. And even though “The Interview” makes mention of the mass hunger and concentration camps in North Korea, it never fully integrates these ideas into its plot. Why not include something involving defectors, or even incorporate a scene that involves one of the notorious concentration camps? Although that probably would have gotten them accused of being in bad taste, attempting to go there would have been more interesting than the mostly toothless, sophomoric humor offered here.

Also, it must be acknowledged that there are scenes here that will offend some viewers for their apparent stereotyping, sexism, and cultural sensitivity. Yes, Seth Rogen actually says “Me so solly” while on the phone to the North Korean handlers. Franco’s character gives a speech as he gets off the plane in Pyongyang (actually Vancouver, as is “China” in this film), where he says, “We same same,” and afterward gives a bow, saying “Konnichiwa.” And yes, most of the women on screen are presented as sex objects, especially in the Kim Jong-un party scenes. But thankfully, there’s a lot less of this stuff than you’d expect, and because this is more a reflection on the idiocy of these central characters than anything else, the effect is far less offensive than it could have been.

Greatly counteracting the potential cultural and racial pitfalls are the two truly great performances delivered by Randall Park and Diana Bang, as the main North Korean characters. In fact, they far outshine everyone else in the cast, mostly because they’re practically the only ones in the film who do some actual acting, and who make the effort to embody real characters. (Franco’s relentless mugging – he often seems to be competing against Jim Carrey to see who can find more ways to twist their face – and Rogen’s “Dude! Bro!” reacting can be called lots of things, but acting isn’t really one of them.) Park invests a fair amount of nuance and, dare I say, complexity into his portrayal of Kim Jong-un, conveying in broad yet precise strokes both the genial and murderous sides of his character. Bang also impresses as a character who turns out to be the smartest and most resourceful one in the whole film, and she’s a great comic performer, as in the scenes where Sook acts on her inexplicable and absurd animal attraction to Rogen’s character. (The scene in which Sook screams, “Your nipples are so pink!” while in the throes of passion with Rogen made me laugh out loud.)

In addition, the U.S. doesn’t come across very well in “The Interview,” notwithstanding the flag-waving at screenings. The film depicts a CIA that’s still in the business of assassinating world leaders, and which is so inept that it must depend on two bumbling idiots to carry out its covert activities. Not to mention a country where a show like “Skylark Tonight” is wildly successful, and where its host becomes a respected author.

In the end, I give Rogen, Goldberg, Franco, and company credit for at least attempting to engage with the real world in their comedy, rather than go further into the self-referential comic navel-gazing that reached its apotheosis in their previous collaboration “This Is the End.” Also, it’s admirable that they try to acknowledge and mention, however briefly, human suffering in the midst of their comedy. It turns out, however, that their milieu of body gags and bro-mantic humor that flirts with homoeroticism is a woefully inadequate delivery system for putting forward truly important ideas. But if “The Interview” gets at least some viewers curious about what’s really going on in North Korea, or for that matter, in the world beyond their borders, then it will have served some purpose beyond being just a fleeting media controversy.