A lot has already been said regarding the issues regarding the hacking at Sony, the decision to pull The Interview and the various debates surrounding how justified Sony’s recent decisions have been. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that The Interview, a Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy, will go down as one of the most important and historically significant films in American cinema. It’s significant on two levels, and I am not even joking. One, it is the first film to be pulled from a wide release due to threats. The country’s most treasured right, freedom of expression, is broken when a major production company refuses to distribute a fairly mainstream project. This is has never occurred on this level before, and the fact that Seth Rogen manages to do what Martin Scorsese couldn’t do with The Last Temptation of Christ, what Stanley Kubrick couldn’t do with A Clockwork Orange, what Charlie Chaplin couldn’t do with The Great Dictator, what Larry Clark couldn’t do with Kids, what Oliver Stone couldn’t do with Natural Born Killers. A silly comedy has become the center point of discussions on cyberterrorism, political tensions, and the length that we will go to ensure free speech. So, I would say it’s a pretty big deal when a film is pulled from theaters in America after some anonymous threats. It is something that will likely affect how Hollywood works for quite a while. Even now, a film starring Steve Carrell and developed by Gore Verbinski was cancelled before production even began.
The second important aspect of the film is its release. While, there has been films released simultaneously in theaters as well as VOD, those films tend to be lower budget productions. The Interview is a star-studded film with a $40 million budget that has been heavily marketed before the controversy really sky-rocketed. The film is now being released in several hundred independent theaters, no major chains, across the country as well as many VOD platforms in the US (and Canada, as of the writing of this review). Despite the lack of major theater chains being involved, the success of The Interview in both theatrical and digital box-office could influence how major production companies handle the release of certain films, especially as VOD becomes more widely available. Expect some big changes in Hollywood.
The Interview is about Dave Skylar (James Franco), a talk-show host that runs tabloid stories that focus more on celebrity gossip and scoops than real current events. In an effort to take themselves more seriously, Dave and his producer, Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen), land an interview with Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) after finding out that the North Korean dictator is a fan of the show. However, before leaving they meet Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) and Agent Botwin (Reese Alexander) of the CIA, who decide to use the two men in taking part in a plan to assassinate Kim Jong-un.
First of all, if you’re going to watch the film under the whole “let’s see what all the fuss is about” or “this better be worth the controversy” attitude, stop. Because that is not how you watch a film for the first time. A film should be seen on its own terms, without any unreasonable expectations or preconceived notions. The only reason the controversy surrounding the film should be addressed is if you’re doing a full critical analysis that explores the socio-political context of the film. Going into any film, especially ones with this level of exposure, and expecting something transcendent will only set you up for disappointment.
Now, onto the actual movie which interestingly enough feels like a combination of one of those Bing Crosby and Bob Hope “Road To…” films and Inglourious Basterds. This film marks the second directorial effort from Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg after their surprising turn with This is the End, the only difference being they have a story credit with The Interview, while Dan Sterling is credited to writing the screenplay. Ultimately, The Interview doesn’t quite hit those high points that This is the End did masterfully, but it is a very good follow-up that shows some serious directing prowess from the duo. As far as the humor goes, I found it very hit-and-miss for the first third of the film. It isn’t until the duo reach North Korea where the heart of the film really unfolds and finds itself. The humor from that point onward, while a bit sparse is more consistent that the first act. Oddly enough, I thought there are much more interesting things at play that make the film worthwhile, aside from the humor.
Like with This is the End, the film does an excellent job at establishing, maintaining and developing characters and their relationships with each other. Every action, every line and every joke is deeply rooted in character. You couldn’t switch jokes between characters because doing so would result in character inconsistencies. That is how firmly established the character foundations are. The beginning shows how Aaron Rapoport desires to be taken more seriously as someone who delivers real news and be respected by his peers, so his willingness to go the extra mile gets further and further as the film goes along. Meanwhile, Dave Skylar, a typical man-child character manages to relate to Kim Jong-un as they find things to bond over. Of course, given the nature of the film, Dave is ultimately facing the biggest conflict as he is never sure whether the Kim Jong-un he is befriending is the same one described to him that he was sent over to kill. His inner conflict clashes with Aaron’s desire to get the job done and to get out as quickly and efficiently as possible. At least, until Aaron meets Sook (Diana Bang), the official responsible for maintaining Kim Jong-un’s public image. They make an immediate connection likely due to them relating in the same way Dave related to Kim. The script does a surprisingly good job at handling the mirror characterization with Aaron and Sook and Dave and Kim. I think it’s funny how The Interview has better characterization and character development than Exodus did, and that film technically has character development engrained in its source material.
The Interview isn’t quite the heavy political satire as say Team America: World Police, but it does have touches with the story that do clearly take jabs at multiple targets. The biggest satirical element is obviously the American news media, which is portrayed as focusing on non-news material and taking attention away from real, current events. The film also touches on the need of the American government to stick their noses in foreign countries and interfere without fully thinking through. I did really appreciate that the real problems that the citizens of North Korea suffer through are never the butt of any joke or gag, their voice is heard in the film through Sook. In fact, she is the one that makes it clear that killing Kim will not automatically end the totalitarian regime because someone will just take his place. There needs to be a revolution from the ground up. There’s enough just under the surface, even if it’s not incredibly deep.
The performances of Seth Rogen and James Franco are exactly as expected. Rogen plays a solid straight man to Franco’s wild card. Franco does make some questionable comedic choices, and some of his obviously improved lines fall flat the most often out of all the characters. The real stars of the film are Randall Park and Diana Bang. Randall Park especially gives a surprisingly complex and nuanced performance. He does a good balancing act of being a being a charming man-child and a bitter, vicious dictator who will do whatever it takes to retain his image as a leader. It makes the scenes of him and Franco bonding feels real and hard to tell how much of that charm is pure manipulation and how much is genuine, especially when the film starts to dwell in possible daddy issues. It’s a star-making performance and shows a lot of potential for Randall Park’s future as a comedic actor. And then there’s Diana Bang’s great turn as Sook. She does a good job in starting off as a robotic drone doing her duty to becoming more human as she connects with Rogen’s character; she especially shines in the final act. The various supporting actors, both in America and in North Korea, do a solid job as well, even though none of them really get a lot to do. The film is more heavily focused on the four main characters.
One thing that I really like is Rogen and Goldberg’s direction. After This is the End, it’s nice seeing them continue to do some interesting stylistic choices, as opposed to typical American comedies that tend to simply point the camera at the characters as they improve at each other. Brandon Trost, the DP of This is the End and The Interview, continues to do some interesting work, and this film has some of his best work as a cinematographer. That, along with Zene Baker and Evan Henke’s tight and, at times, comedically effective editing adds a lot of energy to the film even during its slower, character building moments.
The Interview is unfortunately not a stronger film than This is the End, but that doesn’t mean the film is of no merit. The lack of consistent laughs might be a turn off for many, but there is some genuinely good character work at play, thanks to a strong and tight script by Dan Sterling, which creates many set-ups that pay off very well later on. It’s a thoughtful, charming, heartfelt and smartly crafted film that has enough good things going for it that the flat jokes don’t sting for too long. When Dave and Kim are bonding over a Katy Perry song, it may not be hilarious, but it’s oddly cute and charming. I like character stuff in film, and it’s clear that Rogen and Goldberg love every single character they create and actually care for the emotional stakes of those characters. The Interview makes for a solid second feature from the directing duo and whatever they do to follow-up The Interview will certainly be something worth paying attention to. I’m not gonna say that everyone has an obligation to see the film for ‘murica, but be glad that we at least have the option. It is what it is, and if this is something that genuinely interests you, definitely check it out. 75.