Oblivious child-men stir up trouble in North Korea, on- and offscreen
Adding creative insult to corporate injury in the wake of the massive hacking of Sony’s computer files, the film that may have triggered the incident, The Interview, is an intensely sophomoric and rampantly uneven comic takedown of an easy but worrisomely unpredictable target, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. In the relatively sparse annals of irreverent major studio comedies that pissed off foreign nations, for big laughs this one doesn’t rate anywhere near Borat or Team America: World Police; the latter prominently included the present North Korean boss man’s father, Kim Jong-il, among its many targets.
Given the unique cloud under which this dubiously timed Christmas Day release will be opening, it doesn’t seem likely that all the unsought publicity will motivate anyone who wouldn’t have been interested in the film in the first place to see it — and may, instead, keep some away. The circumstances suggest grosses notably lower than the $100 million-plus nabbed by last year’s apocalyptic Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg/James Francoouting, This Is the End.
As political satire goes, The Interview has the comic batting average of a mediocre-to-average Saturday Night Live sketch, with a few potent laughs erupting from an overall mash of sex, drugs and TV broadcasting jokes that feel rooted in a sense of humor primarily characterized by a frat-boy/altered state/prolonged adolescence mind-set.
The mentality of these guys, as before, yields some outrageous, borderline surreal comedy at times, its best results coming during an extended interlude in which Franco’s hotshot New York talk show host Dave Skylark, having been offered the first-ever TV interview with the hermit nation’s 30-something leader, bonds with him during a raucous, just-us-dudes night in Pyongyang. It’s an evening that begins with shooting hoops (the basket having been significantly lowered so Kim can slam dunk) and moves on to wild times with girls, booze, weed and more; it’s enough to make one fantasize about the nature of the private time when Dennis Rodman was twice the guest of the basketball-obsessed supreme leader.
The bawdy, self-consciously transgressive tone is set from the outset, when (the real) Eminem lets slip on Skylark Tonight that he’s gay. This little bombshell (the rapper confesses that he’s been “playing gay peekaboo” for years) sends Skylark and his producer Aaron Rapaport (Rogen) to scoop heaven, so how can they top this other than scoring an interview with the inaccessible Kim?
All it takes is one call, and since Kim turns out to be a fan of Dave’s, the interview is on. Aaron doesn’t like the stipulation that Kim will not only provide the answers but all the questions as well, but this is not the moment for journalistic nitpicking. For his part, Dave is beside himself, enthusing that, “In 10 years, Ron Howard‘s going to make a movie out of this.”
Similarly excited is the CIA, which, in the deliberately provocative form of Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan), persuades the duo that — even though they’re more interested in addressing the rumor that the Supreme Leader is so godlike that he never goes to the bathroom —they can’t possibly refuse to serve their country and do the world a favor by offing Kim when they have the chance. And so the hit is on.
The guys’ host and guide in Pyongyang is Sook (Diana Bang), a clenched, ferocious-but-hot tough cookie. Ensconced in a gloomy stone palace not unlike that of the Wicked Witch of the West, the boys nervously go over their murderous plot when who should knock on their door but Kim (Randall Park) himself, who confesses his obsession for Katy Perry and “Firework” before inviting Dave — but pointedly not Aaron — out the door for a raucous night on the town.
Dave is so taken with Kim that he has serious second thoughts about going through with the killing, much to the consternation of Aaron, who, in one of the script’s more amusing inspirations, gets something going with the scary Sook. But before the life-or-death matter can be resolved, the globally anticipated TV interview takes place. Perhaps the most preposterous detail in a film full of them is that such an exchange would be broadcast live.
If you set up as provocative a premise as do the makers of The Interview, you ultimately have to deal with all its implications; let’s just say that what concludes the film is rote action, simplistic wish-fulfillment stuff that feels cheap and naive and more concerned with looking coolly kick-ass than with any real-world consequences. Even if one part of the film is sincere in wanting to highlight North Korea’s negatives (famine, ideological orthodoxy, cult of personality, militarism, nuclear brinkmanship, et al.), the larger part is devoted to very Western-style sexual grossness, deterministic outrageousness, self-satisfied obliviousness and contended immaturity.
Embodying most of these traits is Franco’s Dave, whose media success allows him to get away with never evolving beyond the persona of a loud, obnoxious child, a guy who doesn’t care that he often comes off like an idiot — if he’s even aware of it — and probably even relishes it. Of course, he’s the hero. By contrast, Rogen’s Aaron is the worrywart nebbish, able to parry with his longtime partner one on one but always deeply in his shadow in company.
Better looking and not as round as the real supreme deal, Park brings great energy and enthusiasm to his tricky job of portraying the world’s least known big-deal ruler — there are even scenes of him getting the famous Kim haircut and selecting a suit from a closet full of identical ones. Bang is never less than attention-getting as the cool outside/warm inside protocol officer who diligently follows the party line (until she doesn’t).
How far The Interview makes its way in the world will certainly be interesting to watch — it may not be released in Asia, according to recent reports — as will the nature of the opposition to it.
Production: Columbia Pictures, Point Grey
Cast: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park, Diana Bang, Timothy Simons
Directors: Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen
Screenwriter: Dan Sterling; story by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Dan Sterling
Producers: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, James Weaver
Executive producers: Dan Sterling, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, James Franco, Shawn Williamson, Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: Brandon Trost
Production designer: Jon Billington
Costume designer: Carla Hetland
Editors: Zene Baker, Evan Henke
Music: Henry Jackman
Casting: Francine Maisler
R rating, 112 minutes