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Film Review: The Interview

The Interview (2014; Directed by Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg)

Several months ago, The Interview was the most famous movie in the world. Following the computer hack of funding studio Sony Pictures perpetrated by a North Korean group and overheated rhetorical threats of retributive violence for its disrespect for its Dear Leader Kim Jong-un from the isolated totalitarian state, Sony pulled The Interview from a wide release at Christmas. Though it trickled into theatres during the holidays and was also made available online (where it was Sony’s top digital release ever), The Interview had a mixed reception from critics and audiences. Its satirical targets (Kim Jong-un and the state that he runs) sought to quash the film by threatening terrorist attacks against exhibitors, but the American marketplace of box office and of ideas consigned it to a no less ignominious fate, by Hollywood standards. The headline-driven curiosity and the fear of reprisals seemed to cancel each other out, and The Interview fizzled in release.

Movies do not always get the reception that they deserve, however, and The Interview, while far from brilliant, got a raw deal overall. In point of fact, it may indeed be last year’s great American comedy. The relative loftiness of such praise depends entirely on how the praiser tends to feel about American comedy, and without spiralling off on a discursive tangent, let’s just say that there’s more than a bit of backhand to that compliment. Still, despite excessive amounts of comedic crudity, The Interview manages satire with real bite.

The film’s premise became pretty well known, thanks to the controversy it engendered, but it’s the key nuances that make it work. Dave Skylark (James Franco, going miles-broad quite hilariously) is the brash, confident, and insipid host of Skylark Tonight, a frothy but popular entertainment news talk show specializing in shocking, emotionally-charged celebrity revelations. Opening act guests include Eminem coming out as gay (he thought it was pretty obvious from his lyrics, honestly), Rob Lowe revealing that he’s bald and bewigged, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing with puppies (a brief shot only, but possibly the best moment in the movie).

Supporting Skylark is his producer and best friend Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen, also co-writer with Evan Goldberg and James Weaver and co-director with Goldberg), who likes and has fun with his buddy and front-of-camera star but also yearns for the opportunity to do Serious Hard-Hitting Journalism (Skylark Tonight features its host posing with Guy Fieri in the opening credits; Frontline, it ain’t). Such an opportunity presents itself when word trickles out that Kim Jong-un (Randall Park), despite the aggressive anti-capitalist, anti-American stance of his government, adores its popular culture, including Skylark Tonight. Rapoport reaches out through side channels and the North Koreans grant him and Skylark the right to enter the closed country to interview Jong-un, albeit only by asking the questions the dictatorship’s propagandists provide to them.

After announcing the coming interview on air, Skylark and Rapoport are approached by the CIA and asked to assassinate Jong-un, whose state has developed nuclear ICBMs capable of striking the American West Coast. They agree, but their resolve is separately challenged when they arrive at the Dear Leader’s private compound: Rapoport has qualms about the morality of murdering even a monstrous dictator and is attracted to propaganda agent Sook Yung Park (a very game Diana Bang), while Skylark has a ball sharing in Jong-un’s playboy pursuits (basketball, fast cars, alcohol, and women) and comes to feel that he’s misunderstood, trapped by circumstances and doesn’t deserve to be assassinated.

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People of America, your new Academy Awards hosts.

The Interview ultimately treats Kim Jong-un as its villain, a manipulative and unpredictable sociopath who shouldn’t be entrusted with the management of a Starbucks, let alone a nuclear-armed totalitarian state. But he’s not unsympathetic. Park’s performance is wonderful, a shy and endearing expansion/extension of the concept of a lonely, sensitive absolute tyrant that was sketched (in much more racist colours) in Team America: World Police‘s portrayal of his father, Kim Jong-il. It’s made clear that his cool-guy act is intended to manipulate Skylark into treating him and his regime favourably (you’ll be quite familiar with the ins and outs of honeypotting/honeydicking before the credits roll). But when they discuss the taste of margaritas (which were forbidden by his father as a homosexual decadence) or sing an a capella version of Katy Perry’s “Firework” in a Soviet-era tank (an ironic confluence that returns in the action-movie climax sequence), Park convincingly embodies a man who has had godlike status and power thrust upon him when he’d much rather have a few beers and get laid like any other young man.

Skylark and Rapoport, in collaboration with the turncoat Sook, decide that comprehensively and publically stripping Jong-un of his godlike propaganda image is preferable to killing him. As sympathetic as Park’s Jong-un is for most of the film, he is revealed as a nasty piece of work and you’d best believe that his eventual comeuppence is quite complete. Rogen, Goldberg and Weaver are fully willing to extract pounds of flesh from all of their satiric targets (often literally), and reserve cutting barbs for America’s power politics and the CIA’s dirty tricks (“How many times can the U.S. make the same mistake?” Sook asks Skylark, who replies, “As many times as it takes!”) as well as the breathless glitzy distraction of its celebrity culture. But there’s never any doubt that North Korea, whose robustly old-fashioned totalitarianism makes for a juicy satirical cut of meat, is the primary victim.

Many of the comedic assaults are verbal, but many are visual as well. The Interview is very fine technically, with Jon Billington’s production design in particular telling a more rich and detailed story about North Korea’s image projection than the rest of this breezy bro comedy can be bothered to take the time for. At its core, this is a film about the resiliency of male society. Skylark is fond of likening his relationship with Rapoport to that of Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings (or, more ominously, to Gollum and his “precious” from same), and Tolkien’s boy’s-own fantasy quest epic is a decent ironic referential analogue to that undertaken in The Interview. Even the inevitable friendship-sundering conflict is expressed in these terms: when Rapoport disagrees with Skylark’s decisions as regards their assassination mission, Skylark tells him he isn’t Samwise but Boromir (Rapoport confesses that he doesn’t know who Boromir is, which is such “a Boromir thing to say”, per Skylark).

Indeed, there’s a generalized tension between the homosocial assumptions, pop culture referentiality and toilet-humour fixations of male-centric American mainstream comedy and more sophisticated forms of political satire that is not consistently productive and that The Interview never ultimately resolves. The nagging feeling that Skylark and Rapoport’s success is undeserved unless it considers serious political issues, so central to their character motivations, tugs at the larger film, too. But both inside and outside the text, these guys do the silly, crude, juvenile stuff far better (although there is a good Stalin/Stallone joke buried in there).

There was a tendency in responses to the cancellation of The Interview‘s theatrical release to extrapolate resistance to malevolent censorship and righteous support for free speech onto the film’s specific satire, reifying it as more potent and sharp-edged than it actually is (Charlie Hebdo‘s crude cage-rattling humour was treated similarly in the wake of the deadly terrorist attack on their Paris offices). The Interview aims sharp satire at North Korea and its Dear Leader, a target whose skin seemed extremely thick but proved much more thin than expected, with throwaway shots at more familiar domestic bullseyes as well. But its ultimate project of disassembling Kim Jong-un’s elaborate nuclear-equipped house of cards and labelling it the by-product of male insecurities is less subversive than its cause célèbre as the eye of an international diplomatic hurricane made it appear to be. There are several reasons for this, but perhaps the most compelling is that Seth Rogen and his team prove much less into satire about political economy than they are about jokes about putting things up one’s butt. Like its version of Kim Jong-un, The Interview is ultimately limited by its preconditioned context.

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Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews
  1. April 19, 2015 at 8:04 pm

    Good review. Not hilarious, but still funny enough to be worth the watch. Even despite all of the controversy.

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