Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Interview

Directors: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg
Starring: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park, Diana Bang, Timothy Simons, Eminem, Rob Lowe, Ben Schwartz
Running Time: 112 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

All the controversy surrounding the release, or semi non-release of The Interview was simultaneously the best and worst thing that could have happened to this movie. Had it not incited an international incident, chances are it would just come and go, opening to mixed reviews and winning its weekend at the box office, before being set aside until the next James Franco/Seth Rogen comedy vehicle comes along. But now the Sony hack has made it an "event movie," with its release has shifting the conversation entirely and turning its stars into worldwide superstars for at least a few weeks, making the film's actual quality an irrelevant afterthought. It should be the kind of publicity you can't buy but Sony buckled by failing to conventionally release it in a timely manner to capitalize before abruptly changing course. In other words, the studio blew it.

Despite rescuing the film from playing alongside Song of the South and The Day The Clown Cried in an unseen triple feature, it's tentative release is still an ironic debacle worthy of the actual film this fiasco is centered around, which is funnier and smarter than it's getting credit for. If nothing else it's got the media satire thing down pat and features a bizarre, over-the-top performances from America's most popular "love him or hate him" actor. It's hard to watch The Interview without thinking of everything that happened precisely because it's just the kind of event this movie is spoofing.

Franco plays sleazy, dimwitted TV journalist Dave Skylark, whose "Skylark Tonight" talk show scrapes the bottom of the pop culture barrel, covering topics like Rob Lowe's baldness and Eminem's homosexuality (with both cameoing as versions of themselves). Producing it is his best friend and business associate, Aaron Rapaport (Rogen), who's viewed as a big joke in the industry due to his association with a program that makes TMZ look like Charlie Rose and gives a whole new, lesser meaning to the term "soft news." They hope that's about to change when they discover North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) is a fan and wants to arrange a sit-down interview with Dave, albeit under his terms, with all questions formulated by his top official Sook (Diana Bang). Seeing a potential ratings bonanza and the rare shot at journalistic respectability, they jump at the chance. But when CIA Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) hears about the interview she recognizes it as a rare opportunity to assassinate Kim and plans to use Dave and Aaron to do it. Things go awry when she underestimates Dave's incompetence and stupidity and he forms an unlikely bond with the seemingly fun-loving North Korean leader.

The big question going into this was just how necessary it was to focus the plot around a real-life world leader, even going so far as to use his real name and physical likeness. While it's definitely a decision the studio paid for in many ways, it's also easy to understand why co-directors Rogen and Evan Goldberg pushed it through despite the drawbacks. They knew it would be controversial and if you're making an R-rated comedy you want it to have teeth and not pull any punches. Whether we'd have the same movie if they used a fictitious character is debatable, but the the decision does arguably give the story an edge and curiosity factor it probably wouldn't otherwise have on its own.

Make no mistake that this is all about assassinating Kim, so anyone going in solely for that reason won't be disappointed. His role is far from a cameo and they definitely don't wuss out in lampooning the real person, which would have truly been a letdown. But forget about North Korea since Sony's lucky GLAAD didn't go after the movie for the amount of gay jokes Rogen and Goldberg throw in, which are enough to make you think you're back in the fourth grade playground. It seemed they couldn't go five minutes without one, which got tiresome after a while, as did many of the sex jokes, which were hit-or-miss. Where this really scores is with the physical comedy and satire.

We may as well just admit that any scene involving the planning, smuggling, or attempted administering of the poison to Kim is laugh-out-loud hilarious. Luckily, these sight gags takes up a large portion of the film and there's a training sequence early on where Caplan's character attempts to prepare Franco's TV host for the mission, realizing there's probably no way this moron will be able to carry it out. She's mostly right. Once they get to North Korea it only gets better when Dave Skylark bonds with the free wheeling, emotional Kim, even as Aaron tries to convince him he's being taken for a ride. But Aaron's also being taken for one, by Kim's right hand woman Sook, with whom he becomes infatuated.

There's more than a few ways the character of Dave Skylark could have been played, as evidenced by the fact that real-life journalists were considered for the part at early stages in the project's development. While having an actual straight-laced newsman reacting to the absurdity around him would have been an interesting meta direction to go, the casting of Franco works better for the tone they're going for. While it's arguable whether that tone results in the best possible movie, Franco fully commits to playing Dave as basically the dumbest guy on the planet. The actor's not the least bit believable as any kind of journalist and doesn't even seem to care, which strangely makes the whole situation funnier. It's almost as if his entire performance consists of him mocking himself playing the role. Some would say that's become the story of his career, in that our feelings on whatever he's doing at the moment are completely wrapped up in our opinion of him as a personality. Obviously it works well for something like this, which is intrinsically tied to our relationship with the media, in both fictional and now non-fictional ways.

The reliable Rogen proves again his stock in trade is the likable schlub and while he isn't necessarily any more believable as a producer than Franco as a host, that's again exactly the point. There's no sense belaboring the point that these guys have such bro chemistry on screen by now that they may as well be married, a joke definitely in the spirit of this script. But it's Randall Park as Kim giving what's by far the film's best performance, especially shining in all his scenes opposite Franco and expertly skirting the line between believability and silliness when the story shifts and he must transform at the drop of a dime. His real life counterpart can at least take solace in the fact that they got a really great comic actor to play him.

If anyone deserves to emerge a winner out of all this, it's Park, and to a degree, Bang, who breathes life into movie every time she shares the screen with Rogen. Caplan's role as the CIA agent is mostly functional but she gets to have some golden exchanges early on when preparing the guys for their mission. The actual "interview" of the movie's title delivers, as does a hilarious fight sequence that takes place during it. It probably should have ended shortly thereafter since what follows isn't quite as memorable, but it's tough to complain when this is one of the few recent Rogen/Franco comedies with the restraint to contain itself at under two hours. 

Whenever massive hype is suddenly thrust upon what would otherwise be considered an ordinary release, disappointment usually awaits. There's definitely no guidebook for a situation like this but I can say it exceeded my admittedly low expectations, keeping me entertained throughout and doing more things right than wrong. It won't change the world, even if it's release seemed to alter the course of the movie industry, if just temporarily. Forced to choose between the real life incident and the one depicted in this movie, real life gets the edge. But not by much. Far worse comedies have gotten more attention for less.

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