You surely remember the hubbub last December when, following the hack of Sony Studios computers, Sony decided to cancel the theatrical release of “The Interview.” The film’s premise: The travel plans of a U.S. journalist and his producer who journey to North Korea to interview Kim Jong-un are compromised when the pair is handed an assassination mission by the CIA. Although the film is a comedy, news of its existence is was said to have ruffled the feathers of high-ranking muckety-mucks in North Korea. Upon learning of the film’s release last fall, Kim Jong-un supposedly called the plot “an act of war.”
It was later revealed that the Sony breach was the handiwork of a group of terrorist hackers from (or sympathetic to) North Korea that called themselves the “Guardians of Peace,” and that this group promised multiple acts of terror should the studio release the film. Caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, Sony announced that it would not release the movie, and was put in an even worse position when the Hollywood elite screamed about freedom of speech violations. The decision by Sony ultimately cost the studio $45 million and cost the studio’s chairperson, Amy Pascal, her job.
I caught up with the film on Netflix. The comedy co-stars James Franco and Seth Rogen, whose movies I often enjoy, and it could have been one of the funniest films of the year. Alas…it isn’t. My review follows, but if you’re looking for a single-sentence summary critique, I’ll borrow my one of dad’s bon mots of film crit and say that “The Interview” is an abortion of cinema.
There are two promising scenes at the beginning of “The Interview.” In the opening scene, the camera is up close on the face of a young North Korean girl, who sings a patriotic anthem in public, during which she lauds the country’s Supreme Leader, then says that the only thing better than praising His Greatness is watching the Great Satan – the U.S. – burn in a massive inferno. The camera draws back and a nuclear test missile is launched. The perfect touch resides in the song lyrics – they are purposely translated into the type of stilted “Engrish” that I’ve actually heard on my travels through East Asia.
In the next scene, we are interviewed to Dave Skylark (James Franco), dim-bulb host of celebrity news show “Skylark Tonight.” He is interviewing Eminem, who plays himself and suggests that he might prefer the nocturnal company of men instead of women. Skylark’s producer, Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen), urges Skylark to push for a full confession from the bad boy rapper, and the show is a ratings smash. (A similar scene featured in the trailer shows Skylark interviewing Nicki Minaj about her song “Super Bass,” which he mis-pronounces as “Superb Ass.” This scene is missing from the finished film.)
Unfortunately, the clever opening seems to be something of a fluke, as the remainder of the movie takes an acting and screenwriting nosedive. “Skylark Tonight” attracts a fan in Kim Jong-un, and Rapaport convinces Skylark that securing an interview with the reclusive dictator could bring their show the legitimacy it has thus far lacked despite 1,000 episodes and ten years on air. (Rogen plays the smart one for once – a scary thought – and his character’s pride is wounded when an acquaintance from CNN mocks his character for being at the helm of a second-rate news show.)
The interview is booked, with Kim Jong-un’s mysterious handler, Sook (Diana Bang) insisting that the questions be screened in advance. Before Skylark and Rapaport can depart, however, the CIA intervenes, ordering Skylark and Rapaport to “take him out” the day of the big interview. “To dinner?” the pair asks, even though they already know the answer. It certainly helps that their CIA contact, Agent Lacey, is played by Lizzy Caplan of TV’s “Masters of Sex.” Caplan isn’t given much to do except pout in a series of low-cut tops, but Rapaport believes that what she says about Kim Jong-un’s evil regime is true, while Skylark, justifiably smitten by Agent Lacey, simply goes along with it.
I honestly don’t remember if the CIA ordered the dynamic dummies to kill Kim Jong-un or merely suggested it, but it doesn’t matter. The entire sequence was poorly written and the proposed assassination method – administering a dose of poison that is secreted into the skin via a handshake – was preposterous, like something out of a Roger Moore-era Bond film.
Skylark and Rapaport land in Pyongyang and are whisked through throngs of locals, past fully-stocked supermarkets and chubby kids, to the fortress-like imperial palace. Sook answers their questions about her Supreme Leader. Yes, he really is a god. No, he doesn’t pee or poo, and nor does he have a butthole. (Screenwriter Dan Sterling gets an enormous amount of mileage with that joke.) The Americans are no sooner in their suite when Rapaport misplaces the poison and “President Kim” invites Skylark for some off-camera one-on-one.
Kim is played by comedian Randall Park, and his early scenes with Skylark have a contagious energy that the rest of the movie lacks. Skylark is nervous about his secret mission, and is enormously relieved to learn that President Kim is something of a misunderstood teddy bear – given unfair pressure to fill his father’s shoes, and wanting little more than to play basketball, drive a tank, and smoke a bowl. As childish and silly as this joke is, I nevertheless chuckled when Kim revealed that he sometimes feels empowered after listening to Katy Perry tunes in private.
So what to do? Can Skylark convince Rapaport and Agent Lacey that President Kim is not the dictator they think he is? Or is he being “honeypotted” by North Korea?
I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that it is violent and unfunny, similar in that regard to the 2008 Rogen-Franco vehicle “Pineapple Express.” The ending, like so much of the film, is something of a missed opportunity. For starters, the movie would have worked better – and caused less of a cinematic security threat – as a thinly-veiled satire of the mutual distrust between two nations. Call the country “Eastern Utopia” and the dictator “Commander Su,” let’s say, and the whole film would automatically gain a half-star ratings upgrade. Of course, it still wouldn’t be anywhere near as clever as it could have been. The aforementioned “butthole” joke was funny but was also overused – a remnant of the Will Ferrell School of Beat-You-over-the-Head-Until-the-Point-of-Exhaustion Comedy.
Speaking of poop humor, Rogen and Co.’s repeated references to anal penetration grow tiring. In “This is the End,” a hearty, off-color laugh was earned when the “Jonah Hill” character was raped by a well-endowed demon and turned into one of Satan’s minions. In “The Interview,” however, the references are merely repetitive to the point of annoyance. Rapaport is sent to retrieve a canister of poison, and panics when DPRK guards close in. “Stick it up your butt!” Skylark repeats perhaps a dozen times while the CIA listens in. We hear a squishy sound (thankfully OFFSCREEN) and, finally, Rapaport says, “The package is secure.” The joke falls flat because the dragged-out build-up by Franco – who overplays his character’s stupidity to an insufferable degree – kills the joke.
All of these words are not to say that the film is devoid of humor. I laughed…just nowhere near as often as I hoped I would. I mentioned “This is the End” in the previous paragraph as a movie that produced plenty of R-rated laughs. That film, co-directed by Rogen, who also co-helmed this one, was satirical and scatological and – yes – lowbrow, and it hit all the right notes without ever beating a joke into submission. “The Interview,” on the other hand, was something of a missed opportunity. The film’s good bits were few and far between, and for all of the debate raised by the film’s botched release, I can’t help but think that such commotion should have been attached to a much better movie.
Like the title of one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, “The Interview” is much ado about nothing. D+.