I’m going to do my best in this review to ignore the gigantic off-screen furore surrounding The Interview. Somewhere, amid hacker groups, the North Korean government, the comments of President Barack Obama and a stoner comedy becoming a bastion of free speech and the fight against censorship, I just sort of had to close my eyes, plug my ears and go “La la la la la la”. Ignoring all of that, The Interview is the latest in a string of stoner comedies from the Rogen/Franco/Goldberg trio, the last of which was the only mildly passable This Is The End. I found that film aptly named, because it really didn’t seem as much could be squeezed out of this particular brand of scatological/sexually/overly violent brand of comedy. I actually did say “this might very well be the nadir of that while genre, because what are they supposed to do now?” But I’ve been wrong before.
Dave Skylark (Franco) and his producer Aaron Rapoport (Rogen) are the brains behind Skylark Tonight, an immensely successful celebrity interview show. But both men, in different ways, dream of doing something more important with their careers, and opportunity knocks when they find out North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) is a big fan of the show. Given the chance to interview the despot, the two men are soon co-opted by the CIA into a risky assassination attempt.
Oh man, the stoner comedy genre. I know that Seth Rogen has made a career out of this, and has dragged a lot of other people with him, but the time has come to say enough is enough. Seth Rogen is 32 years old. Franco is 36. And there comes a time when you have to say that men that age laughing at the word “dong” is no longer really viable comedy, provided you have reached a certain level of maturity. And that really sums up my feelings towards The Interview.
It’s an awful, awful film. Give me anything else to use as a bulwark in the fight to protect free speech, but not this. Not this crass, puerile, politically impotent and horribly unfunny production, which, in any just world, would be the final definitive end of the stoner comedy. Instead, thanks to North Korea or whoever was responsible, it will probably give it the shot in the arm it needs to keep churning out more of Rogen’s dick jokes.
There are exactly two things about The Interview that made me laugh. The first, early on, gave me great hope for the film, a mock interview with Eminem where the rapper comes out as gay, and the skit unfolds as this great satire on Eminem’s lyrics, celebrity journalism and the culture of celebrity in general, with the whole thing made by Eminem’s deadpan performance. The other was a recurring call-back by Franco’s character on The Lord of the Rings as a reference point, with a memorable exchange including the line “That is such a Boromor thing to say!”
Everything else is awful. I can’t stress this enough. The Interview is damn near unwatchable for me. The premise is ridiculous, but you would get over that. Franco and Rogen get an interview with the world’s current alpha bad guy and then get sucked into a plot to kill him, alright. I can work with that. But the unfolding plot, or lack of it, is such a total mess that it defies belief.
The Interview is banking a lot of the dynamic between Rogen and Franco, with Rogen a sort of straight man to Franco’s wild card zany guy, not unlike nearly every other film they’ve made together. But where the hook of them playing versions of themselves in This Is The End was enough to get past the stale nature of it, The Interview is left lacking. Skylark is just so manic and random that it’s impossible to settle into any kind of firm opinion of him, and Rogen’s straight man jumps from being a standard guy to being this immature pot-smoking malcontent, and the dynamic that emerges is just so boring. And forced. And just bad. These guys shouldn’t be friends. Nothing is done properly in defining this relationship, or why it’s supposed to be so important to the resolution of the plot. The two just sort of crash into each other’s personalities, and hope that what comes spilling out will be funny. And, when it isn’t, the film decides to focus on actually stuff spilling out of people.
And beyond that, The Interview is doing its utmost to offer an insultingly simple glimpse at the situation in North Korea. Does it want to be a satire on how the western media is all too quick to demonise and drop the ball on proper investigative journalism? Does it want to be a searing indictment of Kim Jong-un’s regime? Does it want to shine a light on the plight of the North Korean people? Or does it just want to be a film where James Franco prances around with Kim Jong-un, doing increasingly stupid and moronic things, before deciding to try and make a tired and dumb political point at its conclusion? A point so vapid and needless, that it simply makes the overall experience all the worse?
Oh yes, Kim Jong-un and his cronies aren’t the best people to have in charge of North Korea, and are hiding how bad things are in the country. How terrible, but at least you got 90 minutes of jokes out of it before treating the topic seriously and hoping to land an emotional punch. Well Seth Rogen, James Franco, Evan Goldberg, you didn’t. And hey, good job on critiquing American efforts at unseating dictators as liable to result in worse situations, and then showing it working. Nothing stupid about that.
There is just a certain cheapness to how The Interview proceeds. Every scatological joke, every moment of bland, mindless violence, every bit of casual racism and every bit of faux sentimentality towards the end just adds up and up into this disaster of a film. This is the kind of movie I see treated with the “Well, what did you expect?” kind of mentality, and I suppose there is a point there. But I do think that Rogen has done this better in the past, and the lack of ideas or proper motivation, after years of making the same thing over and over again, is obvious throughout The Interview. There is a better, smarter, more genuinely thought provoking film to be made out of the western media relationship with North Korea and its head man, and it’s a film that could be funny too. But The Interview is not that film, no matter how much it pretends to be in-between the moments when Rogen is humiliating himself for our supposed enjoyment.
The Grand Budapest Hotel of Wes Anderson, Inglorious Basterds of Quentin Tarantino, and Team America: World Police of Trey Parker and Matt Stone are among the films who have tackled dictators or totalitarian states well, with plenty of comedy to boot. They went different ways with their satire or critique, and even the frequently crass Team America had the visual hook of being an elaborate puppet show to distract from some of its lower moments. Rogen, Franco and Goldberg have not done enough here to join that canon. The joke is that Kim Jong-un is crazy and North Korea backward, and not enough is done after the establishment of these things. And with the central duo failing to spark or spending too much of the film off on their own, the promise of subtle humour or slapstick fun is lost.
There is so little about The Interview that works, that I’m just sort of at a loss on how to proceed when it comes to its plot, so maybe I’ll just move right along. Rogen and Franco seem to me like even they are getting a little tired of this by now. I remember a time when James Franco had a glittering career ahead of him, now he’s doing crap like this, and not even looking like he’s enjoying it anymore. And Rogen, I just don’t find him funny, relatable, believable or emotive. Park’s physical resemblance to North Korea’s Dear Leader is all that he has going for him, and Lizzy Caplan pops up as The Interview’s girl, much like Emma Watson popped in This Is The End. She’s there to be a focus for sex jokes and little more. Nice to see the Rogen/Goldman duo evolve their style! The sexism is endemic, as Diana Bang’s potentially interesting propaganda official also becomes little more than a sexual object by the conclusion.
It’s visually boring. A lot of synth editing – rapid cuts accompanied by techno music for effect – take place, and the views of North Korea, while awe-inspiring at times (Vancouver in actuality) can’t really do anything to enliven proceedings. And the script has all of the problems that you would expect, with a sequence around the halfway point, that involves a tiger ,a drone canister and hiding things up your rectum being as bad as The Interview gets. This is what Seth Rogen is reduced to in order to make a living: making a sketch about a dead tiger and shoving things up his ass against his will, making a funny face while doing it. When the Verge throw some criticism the films way on Twitter, Rogen’s response was “Go fuck yourself”. This is what he is getting up in arms about, a film where the rectum is the fallback position for comedy.
I don’t know who said it, but I’ve always been struck by the declaration that “In every boy’s life, the moment of greatest joy and greatest sorrow is when he defeats his father for the first time” (I think it was actually an episode of Frasier where I first heard it, but who knows where they got it from). Well, I have a better one yardstick for sorrow. It’s when you realise that you have outgrown stoner comedy, that you no longer get any pleasure out of jokes based purely around the names and slang of genitalia, curse words, excrement or recreational drugs. While I could tolerate This Is The End two years ago, I find myself unable to tolerate The Interview. Game over man.
If Seth Rogen would like to give something else a try, I might be willing to give it a look, but I’m afraid that stoner comedy and I have to part ways now. The Interview, an awful film in nearly every sense, shoddily acted, scripted, directed and replete with all of the worst aspects of the genre – sexism, racism, homophobia to name a few – is a film to run screaming away from, to look back upon with shame. It’s important that this film not be censored or denied a screening because of the threats of those who wish to shut down free speech, but on a critical level, it is to be avoided at all costs.
(All images are copyright of Columbia Pictures).