We’ll try not to give “The Interview” too much undue credit for its gutsy premise of a U.S.-orchestrated attack on North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. This is, after all, a Seth Rogen and James Franco-starring comedy calibrated to entertain a mass audience when it comes out Christmas Day, and the assassination plot is to some extent simply a vehicle for familiar bromancing antics and idiots-in-over-their-heads hijinx. The extravagance of the North Korean elite also introduces some fun new methods with which to up the ante on party montages. For instance, the prospect of Franco sipping a frozen margarita while gleefully firing off explosives from a Stalin-era tank is perversely appealing.
That said, the premise is gutsy, outrageous and unprecedented for this type of film. To actually name a living dictator of a hostile sovereign state as the target of an assassination, portray that dictator with a look-alike and then kill the character on screen for the pure joy and amusement of audiences worldwide is, to say the least, much higher stakes than what you would typically see in a buddy comedy. We weren’t surprised to see Franco and Rogen tangle with drug lords and corrupt cops in “Pineapple Express” or infernal demons in “This Is The End,” because those opponents were, crucially, fictional. On the other hand, North Korea deemed this film an “act of war” and threatened a “resolute and merciless” retaliation, which may or may not involve last week’s hacking and public dissemination of several years of internal documents and communications at Sony, the studio which released the film. With all this noise swirling in the background, “The Interview” could have mightily disappointed if it didn’t rise to the occasion and validate the controversy with something worthwhile.
So what does the movie deliver? Franco is Dave Skylark, a vapid entertainment TV reporter with his own talk show, while Rogen is the “brains” behind the operation, producer Aaron Rapoport. As the film opens, they are celebrating 1000 episodes, but though they’re successful, Rogen’s character has some feelings of insecurity about the type of news he’s slinging. The biggest story he’s broken this year is a certain (surprising) celebrity coming out of the closet. We won’t give it away, but suffice to say it’s a very unexpected cameo and a hilarious sequence.
While reading about North Korea on the internet one day, Aaron learns that the supreme leader Kim Jong-Un is a huge fan of American pop culture, and that his show, “Skylark Tonight,” is one of the dictator’s all time favorites. He hatches a plan to use the intel to secure an exclusive with Kim —an interview that would make any journalist’s career. A few phone calls later, he’s in, but under the strict conditions that the interview must be conducted in North Korea, and he must only ask questions chosen by the supreme leader. Aaron wants to back out, as this is turning out to be the opposite of a quest for journalistic integrity, but Dave is hooked on the idea of an exclusive, and they decide to go through with it.
Enter the CIA, in the form of a glammed up Lizzy Caplan as Agent Lacey. Her cool and professional character easily subdues the two knucklehead journalists, so when she suggests that they be the ones to administer a dose of dermally-absorbent ricin to Kim via handshake, they agree, more to please the foxy agent than out of any sense of political justice or empathy for the North Korean people.
Their arrival in Pyongyang is when film starts to get dicey. It should be said that some will inevitably find this movie racist and/or xenophobic. Critics could point to scenes in which Rogen and Franco imitate Korean accents, saying “me so sowwy,” or, comparing cultures, “same-same.” Nonetheless, writer Dan Sterling (the film’s co-directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are also credited on the story) does a few smart things to help the film stay balanced. First of all, Sterling maintains a delineation between the people of North Korea and their evil dictator, being careful not to make broad strokes about the culture, except to say that they have been misinformed about their leader’s godliness. He also gives us a sympathetic Korean character, Sook (Diana Bang), a ranking member of Kim’s inner circle who sees him for the master manipulator he is and hopes for imminent change.
But most importantly, while the film conveys anti-North Korean government sentiment, it isn’t blindly pro-U.S either. When the reporting team finally comes to blows with Kim over the reprehensible state of his country, Sterling is smart enough to let the evil dictator get in a few hits, suggesting that the U.S. has more incarcerated people per capita than North Korea and that the Korean War was the U.S.’ fault. While the point of the movie isn’t to have an intelligent discourse on the fallibility of democracy or even the harshness of dictatorship, it’s nice that in a movie that draws laughs from Seth Rogen wincing as he stores a mini-missile in his butt, there are also intelligent thought-nuggets to be found on topics such as whether it really help this country to murder its leader and see him replaced and the role of journalism in combatting evil in the world.
None of this is to distract from the main event, which is the laughs, and Goldberg and Rogen keep them coming. Not all of it is the type of humor that necessarily rewards repeated viewings, but it’s fast and buoyant, and the chemistry between Franco and Rogen is pleasing as ever. Hats off also to Randall Park, the Korean-American actor who plays the pudgy Kim in such a way that makes you want to like him, even as you see that he’s brainwashing you with surprise gifts, including puppies.
The major conflict once the pair are in North Korea is that while Aaron is steadfast in his plan to assassinate, Dave is overwhelmed by his host’s hospitality and undergoes a gossamer-veiled Dennis Rodman style seduction. The themes that came up in Rodman’s interviews after he was befriended by the real life Kim in 2013 while in the country filming a Vice documentary are echoed here. Dave grows to see Kim as just a kid living in his father’s shadow, with zero apprehension of how he is connected to human rights abuses, a la Rodman. In one scene while the two are shooting hoops, Kim even reveals a precious secret to Dave —he HAS a butthole!
As it turns out, Goldberg and Rogen navigate this minefield of prurient humor and political incorrectness with aplomb, delivering a high-concept spy thriller comedy that feels as carefree as “This Is The End,” while managing not to ruin the thrills by too clumsily dumbing down the realities the film plays with. Comedy is most effective when it’s taking a risk. Here, the directors took a big risk, and managed to finesse something shocking and novel out of the familiar Franco-Rogen dynamic without overplaying their hand. [A-]