I saw The Interview on Christmas Day at the Plaza Theatre in Atlanta. Cops surrounded the building, cameras were everywhere and TV news correspondents were scurrying around in search of promising interview subjects. Both of the Plaza's screens had been completely devoted to the film (a major change of pace for a theatre which often shows four or five different movies over the course of a single day), and every single showing was completely sold out well in advance. Before the film began, The Plaza played a three-minute clip of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” (completely with a shot of a befuddled-looking Ronald Reagan from This is the Army) and much of the crowd sang along. This wasn't just a movie – this was a statement, and those of us in attendance were brave souls joining forces in a show of patriotic defiance (or so everyone from the Republican Party to Sony to theatre owners to high-profile celebrities would have us believe). Finally, after all of the pomp and circumstance, we watched a very silly movie.
The circumstances that made The Interview 2014's most significant film are bizarre to say the least, and it would take entirely too much time for me to provide a proper summary of them here. Nonetheless, it's important to note that there's a considerable difference between a significant film and a great one, and The Interview certainly doesn't fall into the latter category. It's not bad. It's pretty funny, actually, and it has some inspired moments. However, this is a film that belongs on the shelf next to This is the End and Pineapple Express (two other similarly silly Rogen/Franco vehicles), not The Great Dictator or Dr. Strangelove.
The Interview places the spotlight on vapid talk show host Dave Skylark (Franco) and his long-suffering producer Aaron (Rogen). Dave's show specializes in cheap celebrity gossip (a typical episode finds Rob Lowe discussing his “secret baldness”), but Aaron yearns to do more substantial reporting. He doesn't want to turn Dave's show into 60 Minutes, exactly, but surely he and Dave can do more than tired old TMZ-style gossip? Then, a major revelation: Dave learns that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un (Randall Park, Veep) happens to be a big fan of the show. Aaron makes a half-hearted effort to secure an interview with the dictator, and to his surprise, Kim agrees.
As soon as the deal is made, the guys are visited by a CIA operative (Lizzy Caplan, Masters of Sex) who makes a simple request: maybe, while the guys are in North Korea, if it wouldn't be too much trouble... they could, y'know, kill Kim Jong-Un on behalf of the U.S. Government. With the speed and assurance of guys who know it's best not to waste too much time setting up the film's premise, Dave and Aaron agree to the task and our tale begins in earnest.
The Interview is a broad, goofy movie which offers the sort of boundary-pushing potty humor one expects from Rogen and his co-writer/co-director Evan Goldberg. There are boundless jokes about various parts of the human anatomy. There's a seemingly endless scene in which Rogen debates whether or not to hide a large, metallic object in his rear (variations on the phrase “You've got to put it in your ass!” are repeated multiple times by multiple characters, as if the filmmakers are uncertain of whether we get the joke and whether we fully understand how funny it's supposed to be). There are gay panic jokes (somewhat counterbalanced by a delightful early scene featuring Eminem), vaguely racist jokes (for some reason, it seems we're still far more comfortable with making fun of Asians than most other minorities) and the female characters are underdeveloped (it's no surprise that the next project Rogen and Goldberg are working on is called Sausage Party). And yet, like certain other Rogen-starring films which have suffered from similar problems, there are more than a few moments of undeniable comic inspiration.
The best thing about the film is its portrait of Kim Jong-Un, which is vastly different from the purely cartoonish portrayal of Kim Jong-Il offered by the overpraised Team America: World Police. When we first meet him, Kim comes across as a sweet, shy, likable guy who happens to have a secret fondness for margaritas and the music of Katy Perry. Actor Randall Park (delivering the movie's best performance) begins by humanizing the man, then slowly begins to reveal that humanity as a carefully-cultivated exercise in media manipulation. It inches closer to reality then we expect it to, and plays as a semi-convincing explanation of how a guy like Dennis Rodman might have found himself sticking up for a horrible monster. It's also worth noting that no matter how goofy the movie gets – and it gets awfully goofy – it doesn't shy away from explicitly underlining the atrocities currently taking place in North Korea. By leaving just enough of the real-world ugliness intact, The Interview ensures that the real Kim Jong-Un will forever be tied to this embarrassing fictional version. The movie wields its satire like a blunt instrument, but it gets the job done.
Elsewhere, The Interview finds occasional bursts of inspiration. Franco is at his very best when working with Rogen, because his willingness to try anything tends to yield the most fruit in the realm of R-rated comedy. Dave Skylark is the first character he's played in a while that feels like an actual, fully-realized character, and Franco sells the man's brainless charisma with aplomb. Meanwhile, Rogen relegates himself to the straight man role, fuming in the background as he struggles to find a way to nudge Dave in the right direction. The film's gleefully excessive violence offers more fun than tedium, and the movie is savvy enough to aim its comic sights back at the United States every now and then. Still, the best scenes are those in which Kim slyly woos Dave with meticulously staged vulnerability. “You know what does more damage than nukes, Dave? Words.”
I don't feel even a little brave or noble for going to see The Interview, but I do think the film's release is important. Not because of the swipes it takes at a sitting dictator or because the film is particularly exceptional, but because we should never permit threats of terrorism to dictate what is and isn't acceptable in our popular culture. The film's ultimate release is something of a victory, I suppose – the Plaza's marquee proudly sported the words “Freedom Prevails!” - but it's a slightly hollow one, as it only came about in the wake of some undeniably cowardly behavior from the major movie theatre chains, other major studios and Sony itself (though these parties are guilty of cowardice to varying degrees). I don't want to overstate the significance of the circumstances surrounding the film's release, but The Interview's struggle to make it to the big screen will likely ensure that we'll see fewer films like this in the years ahead. Cinema's ability to speak truth to power has taken a small but significant hit, and only time will tell whether this open wound will heal or fester.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Year: 2014