Sunday, January 4, 2015

Movie Review: The Interview

Movie: The Interview
Directed by: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg
Starring: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Randall Park

The Interview managed to survive the stormy political intrigue that threatened to suffocate it, but despite the surprising likability of it’s two male leads and a near-brilliant performance from Randall Park as Kim Jong-un, the film’s torturously-long comedic sequences and muddled direction ultimately prevents it from being anything more than average.

The Interview has been out for over a week now, so I’m probably more than a little late to the party.  To be honest, were this any other movie I probably wouldn’t have bothered with a review to begin with.  Despite this, I strongly believe that it deserves one - and not for any of the hollow claims of “patriotic duty” that’s been flung around the Internet lately.  Rather, I think the film really deserves a fair and honest review - one apart from the politics and jingoistic fervor, and without a preconceived sense of what it should have been according to one armchair sociologist or another.  See my “Interview analysis” post if you want my take on the royal mess this movie’s made over the past few months, but right now, I'll keep the focus where it belongs - on how well The Interview works by its own merits, and nothing more.  This may well be an impossible task, but I intend to give it my best.

The story should be familiar to anyone with pulse by now. Franco and Rogen play manic celebrity talk show host David Skylark and his down-to-earth producer Aaron Rapoport, respectively, who, following Aaron’s sudden existential angst born of a run in with a former classmate-turn “serious journalist,” decide to cap off their thousandth-episode by landing an interview with their most high-profile fan: the Supreme Leader of North Korea himself, Kim Jong-un.  Unfortunately, their plans get hijacked by the CIA, who want to use this opportunity to “take out” the young tyrant once and for all.  Adding to the mix is Sook, North Korea’s Director of Communications, who has an agenda of her own regarding our two witless would-be assassins.   And, as the saying goes, “hilarity ensues.”  We’re going to ignore the excuse plot, as well as the ridiculous and implausibly convenient premise; this is a Rogen/Goldberg production, after all, where suspension of disbelief isn’t just a requirement - it’s a commandment.  The real thing of note here is the surprisingly able showing by Franco as the perverted, pop-culture talking, slightly racist, and generally moronic Skylark.  While I’m normally not a big fan of Franco’s acting, I must admit that he did a fine job with his portrayal of a character that probably looked absolutely horrid on paper.  Despite Skylark’s obligatory stupidity and off-the-cuff references to brown sugar, honeydicking, and “stank dick,” (there is a context for those, but I’d rather not delve any further) he is also a good friend to Aaron and possesses an amazing degree of empathy - or at least, to the extent allowed by an intentionally-offensive comedy.  Rogen’s Rapoport almost fades into the background in comparison, serving strictly as a hyper-thin foil to the much-more interesting Skylark.  While Rogen’s character is more firmly tethered to the “plot,” such as it is, it was Skylark that kept the first 45 minutes of the movie tolerable and even enjoyable at times.

The real acting heavyweight, though, belongs to Randall Park and  his rendition of Kim Jong-un.  While the script initially called for a militant depiction of the Great Dictator, Park wisely choose  a softer, more subtle tract, elevating the character from what would have undoubtedly been a cliche to the most nuanced performance in the film.  Park’s Kim successfully blends sympathy with terror, coming off as a funny, cigar-smoking, pop culture fanboy with daddy issues before switching to a dangerously violent psychopath at the proper provocation.  Even when told that Kim Jong is a master manipulator of the press, it’s still hard not to be drawn in by his seemingly disarming and self-effacing manner, and Park’s quality acting - which, in my  opinion, would have stood out even in a more “serious” movie - made the sudden mood transitions logical and the ending interview with Skylark more believable (relatively speaking) than they would have been otherwise.

But of course, no one comes to see a movie like The Interview for its acting chops; we want to laugh, and it’s in this area - very unfortunate for, you know, a comedy - that it falls somewhat flat.  The usual Rogen/Goldberg fare is on full display:  penis jokes, pop-culture references, and the blatant homoerotic (sub)text prevalent in bromances aimed at 30-something males, so anyone watching only for the lowest comedy denominator surely  got a few chuckles out of it.   However, the usual sharp dialogue and keen timing are noticeably absent, replaced instead by cliches and long comedic sequences that take up significant portions of screen time.  One particularly painful episode stemmed from an act of stupidity on the part of Franco and blossomed into a 10-minute long scene of Rogen crawling through the North Korean undergrowth at night, narrowly avoiding tiger attacks, and having to resort to hiding a tapered missile in his anus to avoid detection from Kim Jong's guards.  While that whole thing isn’t exactly an Oscar-worthy showcase, the problem is not so much with the scene itself as with its length; 10 minutes is a long time to endure a moronic set up for a spy outing, several bad anal sex jokes, and the continued and puzzling confusion of a tiger for a large dog.  Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it’s also integral to other forms of humor, and those 10 minutes lost could have been better spent  elsewhere - even if only to give more bathroom jokes in a different context.  When you stretch a gag out too long, you lose the humor along the way, and what had  been up to that point a decently-paced bit of comedic torture starts to feel more like actual torture - and I’m amazed comedy veterans like Rogen and Goldberg forgot that simple truth while making it.

Then again, it’s hard to know what, if anything, The Interview’s creators would have put in place of these comedic wastelands, since the film seemed patently unsure of what kind of movie it wanted to be.  Many of its most vocal defenders and “anti-critics” claim that it shouldn’t be judged by it merits as a smart political satire because it isn’t one, and never had aspirations to be anything more than a silly blue comedy.  I beg to differ; I believe the film did have some aspirations towards relevant satire - in addition to silly slapstick, with a bit of entertainment mass media parody thrown in.  This attempt to wear multiple hats is, in fact, the movies gravest and most damning sin, and the one to ultimately banish it to the dustbin of mediocrity.  The development of Director Sook is a major part of the blame here, for despite a competent effort by actress Diana Bang - arguably the best after Randall Park - her character, by introducing an alternate plan to bring Kim Jong-un down nonviolently by breaking him on television and invalidating his claims to godhood among his people, added a level of potential seriousness that, by this point, the audience wasn’t willing to buy.  The overly-long joke scenes and massive exposure of Kim Jong-un were all done in support of a storyline whose ultimate culmination was...what, exactly?  A maudlin display of affection that capstones the film’s media parody? A real attempt to address North Korea’s serious humanitarian problems?  Or just a great big good-natured mess that completely overturns any potential for biting satire?  The answer -  without giving anything away to the two or three of you who have yet to see the ending - is all three; The Interview by the end completely embraces its schizophrenic tendencies, and in the process falls short of either moving satire, tongue-in-cheek parody, or even convincing toilet humor.    

None of this is to say that The Interview is a bad movie.  So long as you have adjusted expectations, it can be an enjoyable and surprisingly clever experience.  It’s the lack of commitment at the heart of its story that really weighs it down; had it worn any one of its “hats” with full confidence (and yes, that includes even the slapstick, gross-out one) it would probably have a higher rating, especially with the surprising strength of its characters.  As it stands, the movie’s befuddlement subtracts from all quarters, and despite the outcry swarming around it, I would be surprised if anyone- friend or foe - remembers it a year from now.

Grade: C

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