December 25, 2014

The Interview

Has there ever been another fictional movie about assassinating a real, living ruler? I’m guessing so. But The Interview managed to find itself in a perfect storm of media hype thanks to the Sony hacks and North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, responding so negatively (and threateningly) to the idea of the film. Then again, it’s about his purported assassination, so I can certainly understand his vexation. But is it wrong to make a movie like this, since everything we hear about Kim Jong-un (and his father, Kim Jong-il before him) is so horrible? It does feel a bit wrong-headed, if only because of the real tragedy that exists for the oppressed millions living in North Korea, where a strong propaganda machine controls all information, and where there is apparently mass starvation. At least in movies like Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, the bad guys are so far removed from us in the present—and so vilified—rightly—in our minds—that the horrors perpetrated against them in the movie don’t feel horrific, just funny and even deserved. Perhaps The Interview is ahead of its time. But I’m doubtful it will be remembered as a great comedy, especially when it’s so pickled in its own insipid view of the world.

At any rate, with all the hoopla surrounding the tumultuous release of The Interview, it’s perhaps ironic—and more than a bit disappointing—that the movie isn’t very good. As a comedy, it delivers almost no laughs. (And all of them are squeezed into the film’s trailer.) The film may actually work better as a bad drama trying to understand the mind and the world of an eccentric dictator whose imprisoned people have been fooled into thinking he’s a god. But regardless, there’s little to recommend in The Interview.

James Franco spends most of the film trying really hard to be funny by hamming it up, but his mugging isn’t charming. It’s the bad over-acting of a comic performer whose directors (Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg) don’t have the sense to reign him in. Throughout the film, which runs nearly two hours (and could have easily been thirty minutes shorter), I felt strongly that the makers of it were convinced everything they were doing was hysterically funny.

Franco plays Dave Skylark, the host of a popular entertainment television show that features segments like Rob Lowe revealing his baldness and Eminem unceremoniously coming out on the air. Seth Rogen plays Dave’s producer and best friend, who becomes convinced that the show needs to focus on more important subject matter. When the pair discovers that North Korea’s dictator, 31-year-old Kim Jong-un, is an avid fan of the show, they decide that interviewing the infamous despot will catapult them into a more respectable, serious level of TV journalism. But the CIA has other plans for them, namely to assassinate Kim Jong-un during their stay in the country’s capital, Pyongyang.

Inept assassins can be funny. The plot of The Interview could almost be that of a Marx Brothers movie. James Franco and Seth Rogen try very hard as those inept assassins, but there’s not much fun to be had in their many botched attempts at killing Kim Jong-un. The gags must have seemed funny in the abstract, but the movie is so enamored of its premise that it doesn’t feel the need to do anything more than let that premise play itself out. There’s no invention in the humor, only the dull satisfaction of the performers and the writers who think they’re doing something funny. (Franco acts like a child and makes idiotic decisions that frustrate their plans over and over again; Rogen generally suffers the consequences, like when he’s forced to insert a metallic capsule into his rectum to hide a poison agent from some of Kim Jong-un’s goons.) The jokes are repeatedly delusional, content to recycle an antiquated notion of Asian culture and an arrogant, ignorant nostalgia for Asian stereotypes. (As when James Franco says, “Koniwicha” to North Koreans as he alights from his plane.) Even those feeble gags might have been funny if they had been written and acted out with any imagination.

Perhaps Sony didn’t orchestrate the hack that led to The Interview’s canceled—and then marginally un-canceled—premiere. But the free publicity they’ve gotten out of this event will likely help make up for a loss in revenue. (And the film is sure to do well as an online rental via Youtube and Google Play.) And it has, strangely enough, secured a weird little spot in cinema history for a markedly forgettable movie.

With Randall Park, who gives the film’s most authentic and heartfelt performance as Kim Jong-un himself; Lizzy Caplan as a CIA agent (whose chest is ogled by the camera in one of the film’s classiest moments), and Diana Bang as Sook, one of Kim Jong-un’s propaganda ministers, with whom Rogen’s character falls in love. (Her hairdo, which looks like a soft roll of black charcoal, is somehow perfect, especially when she’s holding a vintage-looking machine gun and firing away.) Written by Dan Sterling.

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