‘The Interview:’ Film Review

Well, this has been a weird couple of weeks.

Just to recap:  Sony Pictures was hacked and many embarrassing emails were leaked to the public.  The FBI thinks North Korea is behind the cyber attack as retaliation for a Seth Rogen movie called The Interview.  The hackers threaten 9/11-style terror attacks on movie theaters that would screen The Interview on Christmas Day.  Sony cancels the release of the movie after major theater chains refuse to screen it.  Much outrage ensues.  Democrats and Republicans, who can’t agree on what year it is, both rush to condemn Sony’s decision to pull the movie.  Even the President of the United States weighs in and scolds Sony during the final press conference of 2014.  Meanwhile, and this is where it really gets odd, North Korea’s internet goes out; the internet for the entire country goes down for several hours.  Is the United States involved?  We’re not saying.  Then, Sony decides to release The Interview at a bunch of indie cinemas throughout the country.  Right now, about 300 theaters have booked the film to begin screenings on Christmas.  Now, today, the movie is available on YouTube.

A lot’s been made of Sony allowing a foreign dictator to force them from releasing a movie.  It’s showed cowardice on their part, but more importantly, it’s a First Amendment issue about artistic expression.  

So, here we are.  It’s been a proverbial long, strange trip.  Now, people are going to actually get to see the movie and find out if it was worth all the fuss.  My answer?  Not really.

It’s not that The Interview is a bad movie.  I never felt like I had to force myself to finish it for the purposes of reviewing it.  I had to force myself to sit through Tammy.  This is nothing like that.  It’s just not all that funny.

James Franco plays Dave Skylark, the host of an E! Network-like celebrity interview show called Skylark Tonight.  His show is vacuous, but it’s a huge hit.  This leads to a moral quandary for Dave’s producer Aaron (Seth Rogen, who also co-directed).  Aaron is seeing his classmates from journalism school go on to do important news reporting while he deals in pabulum.  When Dave finds out North Korean leader Kim Jung-un is a big fan of the show, he and Aaron land an interview with the despot.  

Once the Korean interview is planned, the CIA enters in the form of Agent Lacey (Lizzie Caplan).  Since they can never get close to Kim, the CIA would like for Dave and Aaron to assassinate him.  Soon, they are off to Pyongyang with more ricin than Walter White could possibly imagine.  Things get complicated when Dave bonds with Kim over their mutual daddy issues and decides their intended target might not be such a bad guy after all.

I’m a big Seth Rogen fan, particularly of the movies he’s had a creative hand in.  Along with his writing partner Evan Goldberg, Rogan has written Superbad, Pineapple Express, The Green Hornet (their one real misfire, but who could have made that work?), and This Is the End.  I was shocked by how much I liked Pineapple Express, and I loved This Is the End, largely because I’m a sucker for famous people playing the worst possible versions of themselves.  The premise for The Interview is fantastic, and I was really looking forward to it.  I’m kind of sad that it wasn’t funnier than it is.

There’s no question Goldberg and Rogen are frequently dealing in sophomoric humor; there are multiple jokes about anuses in The Interview, and two separate instances where characters poop their pants.  But, they are obviously smart guys, and they’re usually doing low comedy at the height of their intelligence.  Stupid people wouldn’t want to make a movie with these geo-political overtones.  Guild credits can be a nightmare of litigation, but the sole writing credit goes to Dan Sterling, a former producer for The Daily Show.  Goldberg and Rogen only get story credit, and maybe that’s part of the problem; the movie wasn’t all that funny on paper.  

They don’t do themselves any favors as co-directors.  Rogen and Franco go way, way back (all the way to Freaks and Geeks), but that shorthand doesn’t really translate to the acting.  Franco gives a really miscalculated performance.  The pitch in the room would have been “Ryan Seacrest is asked by the CIA Kim Jung-un,” and that’s a hilarious idea.  The problem is Dave Skylark is stupid beyond rational belief.  It’s as if Franco is doing a piece of performance art, that he’s standing outside and commenting on the entertainment media when all he had to do was present it honestly in all its vapidity.  It’s as if he’s smirking at himself.  Comedy is about raising the stakes for the characters, but Franco never seems to notice what’s happening around him.  Had this been played closer to the vest, it might have worked a lot better.  It’s the same problem I had with the Dumb and Dumber sequel, that the characters were so over the top that they wound up just being unpleasant.  Rogen is essentially playing the straight man here, but the script often requires the smart guy to be stupid when the story calls for it.

The biggest laughs are actually supplied by the supporting cast.  Randall Park is very funny as Kim, who frets that his love of margaritas and Katy Perry make him come off as effeminate.  I’ve been a Lizzie Caplan fan forever, and she’s great here.  If they’re making an all-female Ghostbusters, she’d be a great place to start.  And, Diana Bang has the movie’s funniest scene as the head of North Korea’s state-run media.  Her discussion with Rogen about a Skylark Tonight episode involving Miley Cyrus is flat out hilarious.  Things wrap up with a shoot out reminiscent of Pineapple Express that probably does go on for too long.

That’s not all to say the movie is bad.  It’s not.  Skylark Tonight is a hoot, a pitch-perfect takedown of celebrity news.  The movie opens with the least likely celebrity coming out on the air, and it’s really funny.  There were some third-act callbacks that were well placed.  It’s just not as funny as I had hoped it would be.  And, of course, comedy is hugely subjective.  There may be folks who find it hilarious.   I watched it alone and on YouTube, so maybe seeing it with an audience would have helped it play funnier.  

It’s been a weird couple of weeks.  Do you ever notice that when we go to the mat over self-expression, it’s almost never over a great work of art?  Obviously, The Interview will be a movie that goes down as historically significant.  I’m just curious how people are going to react when they see it.

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