Monday, December 29, 2014

The Interview / ** (R)

Dave Skylark: James Franco
Aaron Rapaport: Seth Rogen
Kim Jong-un: Randall Park
Sook: Diana Bang
Agent Lacey: Lizzy Caplan

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen. Written by Dan Sterling and Seth Rogen & Even Goldberg. Running time: 112 min. Rated R (for pervasive language, crude and sexual humor, nudity, some drug use and bloody violence).

I’ll admit that I’ve found the story surrounding the release of the new Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy “The Interview” to be one of the most interesting news stories of the year. For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past month, the film’s distribution studio, Sony Pictures, was hacked in late November. Soon sensitive information was leaked to the Internet, including corporate communications and downloadable copies of five of Sony’s big holiday movies. A group calling themselves the GOP (Guardians of Peace)—a curious set of initials considering they were already taken by a well-known political party—claiming responsibility and demanding the cancellation of the planned Christmas Day release of “The Interview” because of its depiction of the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. It was eventually confirmed by the CIA that they felt North Korea was responsible for the hack. More Sony secrets were released to news organizations and violence was threatened at exhibitor venues that chose to screen the movie on Christmas Day. Several major distributors decided not to screen the film and Sony announced that the Christmas Day opening would be canceled with no other plans to distribute the film. There was an outcry—my own included—that expressed how this development was allowing foreign elements to control our freedom of speech in the U.S. After being virtually scolded by President Obama, Sony announced new plans to release the movie as originally scheduled on Christmas Day to select independent exhibitors and through select video on demand outlets.

So, after all that we get “The Interview”, a rather disappointing comedy about a talk show host and his producer who are asked by the CIA to aid them in assassinating the North Korean leader after they land an exclusive interview with Jong-un because he’s a fan of their show. It isn’t a terrible movie, but it may be a terrible comedy. The entire film is too relaxed to deliver big laughs, while the material all but demands a parade of knee-slappers. I admire what Rogen and his writing and directing partner, Evan Goldberg, are trying to do here, but it doesn’t work.

James Franco plays Dave Skylark, a talk-show host who deals in celebrity exposé with an interview format that sees celebrities revealing surprising secrets about themselves. For example, Rob Lowe appears in an episode where he reveals that he is really bald. Eminem plays himself in a segment where he reveals that he’s gay. It’s actually a brilliant turn by the rapper in self-deprecating humor. Unfortunately, the movie provides no good reason for these stars to reveal such secrets for the overly superficial Skylark. Franco’s performance as Skylark is far too broad. While Franco plays vapid pretty well, it is wrong for this story where some credibility is necessary for his character to be taken even the slightest bit seriously, even as marginally as he’s allowed due to his reputation. Nobody—including a deluded dictator or the most superficial celebrity—would give this guy the time of day.

Rogen’s Aaron Rapaport—Skylark’s producer—is the more reasonable of the two. He’s feeling like a sell-out for producing a show that is the journalistic equivalent to Jerry Springer for celebs when he originally had aspirations to be an important news producer. When he learns that Jong-un is a fan of the show, he sees his opportunity to report something with journalistic integrity. Aaron is more the put upon and than the one who is making the mistakes in this comedy, since he’s essentially Skylark’s babysitter. Rogen plays anxiety well, and fits much better into his role than Franco.

No sooner do they announce their special interview to their viewers than the CIA comes knocking. Lizzy Caplan is fairly wasted in the role of the CIA agent in charge of the operation. She’s given little to do other than provide someone to send Franco into a sexual/power frenzy. Rogen gives himself a much better sexual foil in Diana Bang as the North Korean PR liaison who sets the interview up for the clueless Americans.

Perhaps the most impressive move made by Rogen is the casting of Randall Park as Jong-un. Park plays the dictator not as a ruthless tyrant but as a charming and sensitive manipulator. He’s very soft spoken, until someone makes him mad. Park avoids the temptation to turn him into a childish tantrum thrower in these moments. Instead his head really gets in the game and he seems a force with which to be reckoned with more power at his fingertips than such a sensitive person should have. It’s almost as if he exists in an entirely different movie than Rogen and Franco.

Rogen and Goldberg have enjoyed some great success teaming together in the past with their breakout screenplay “Superbad” and with Franco in the stoner action comedy “Pineapple Express” and the self-deprecating rapture flick “This Is the End”. With “The Interview” they seem to have broken some of their own rules to success. They’re better when they keep the perspective that they are not important people, even when others might think they are.

They’ve also misread their comedic success in these stoner/drug comedies as something that can work on a broader scale. “The Interview” is very broad material. Rogen and Goldberg approach it as if they’re passing a bong around the circle. It’s not a problem if the hits don’t come at a rapid pace, it’ll get there eventually. Well, in a comedy with material this broad, timing is everything. It has to hit the audience at a breakneck pace or we begin to wonder just what the point of all this is. If it’s political satire, then why isn’t it more political? If it’s another dig on their own undeserved fame as a couple of drug addled kids just having a good time, why place themselves in the middle of such caustic world politics material? Whatever it is, the material is too outlandish for the laid back delivery they give it. All the while, Franco’s performance is far too broad for that same laid back direction. The film is as much of a mess as Sony’s own handling of its controversial release.

Despite the film’s failure artistically, I would still argue adamantly that Sony’s initial cancelation was in every way the wrong move. It’s possible their confidence in it may have played into their decision to pull it from the holiday schedule to avoid further controversy; but I find that hard to believe, since the controversy almost certainly would’ve helped ticket sales regardless of the film’s artistic success. I feel they must’ve caved to more forces than were made public. When they killed the movie, it felt like for the first time since the phrase was coined that “the terrorists won.” Sure, all they accomplished was the indefinite postponement of a fairly insignificant movie, but it was a move that we would never allow from our own government let alone a faceless and poorly named cyber terrorist organization or a country lead by someone who has been portrayed in our own media as a crazy and incompetent tyrant. Whether Jong-un is such I don’t believe we know for sure, but it felt awfully un-American; and I’m glad Sony found a way to erase that feeling. Now, Rogen and Franco just need to erase this movie from the American public’s memory.

Warning! Red band trailer contains adult language.

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