Thursday, December 25, 2014

More Serious And Violent Than Funny, The Interview Is Erratic, But (Surprisingly!) Not Bad!

The Good: Character, Much of the acting, Moments of concept
The Bad: Overbearing soundtrack, Repetitive
The Basics: The Interview oscillates between smartly critiquing U.S. the media and intelligence communities and body-type/sex jokes and a violent series of confrontations that are unpleasant to watch.

After all of the controversy and threats from hackers and SONY pulling the wide-release of The Interview (check out the commentary on SONY’s actions here!), SONY has released The Interview in limited release and on-line. Here in Michigan, the local theater Michael Moore subsidizes is one of the theaters that got it in. The controversy means that instead of art theaters showing films like Inherent Vice this Christmas, they are screening what would have been a mainstream comedy instead. And, for all the hype and leaked internal criticism, The Interview is a very mainstream, shock humor comedy film.

And The Interview can only benefit from the hype that surrounded it. It is a Seth Rogen and James Franco film that suffers from a number of issues familiar to fans of the duo’s work; it is short, James Franco is essentially playing a mild permutation of himself (Franco has “serious” and “complete stoner” characters and this is “serious, but with lines that seem familiar from his drug-addled characters), and the humor gets mixed with violence. And, like Observe And Report (reviewed here!) and Pineapple Express (reviewed here!), the violence becomes troubling and is so over-the-top that is sucks the humor that preceded it right out of the film. The thing is, despite the violence and the jokes that don't land, The Interview is surprisingly watchable and is nowhere near as bad as it seemed like it would have been!  Unlike Observe And Report, for example, The Interview does not leave the viewer with a gut-wrenching sense of being horrified and grossed out, despite some pretty over-the-top blood spurts in the film's latter half.

With North Korea getting nuclear missile capabilities, the world is abuzz with journalists pounding the fearmongering . . . except Dave Skylark’s entertainment news show. On the night of their 1000th episode, Dave Skylark and his best friend, executive producer, Aaron Rapaport, break news that Eminem is gay. On the night that North Korea gets full nuclear capability, after Rapaport has had a run in with a former classmate who does not respect his style of entertainment journalism, Skylark’s show breaks a Rob Lowe baldness story. When Dave Skylark learns that Skylark Tonight is Kim Jong-un’s favorite Western-produced show, Skylark and Rapaport decide to try to get an interview with Kim Jong-un. Rapaport is sent to a meeting in the middle of nowhere, China, where the North Korean liaison, Sook, gives the executive producer the terms of the interview. While the terms are not journalistically ethical, Skylark convinces Rapaport to agree to the terms to get the interview at all.

When the duo agrees to the interview terms, Agent Lacey of the CIA approaches Skylark and Rapaport about the opportunity their trip represents: they are wooed to kill Kim Jong-un. While Skylark wants to take the North Korean dictator out in a blaze of glory, Lacey and the CIA train Skylark to deliver a ricin poison handshake, which will kill the Supreme Leader after twenty-four hours. Unfortunately, the poison looks like gum and the North Korean inspectors consume it, leaving the CIA struggling to come up with a back-up plan. They send a drone with a back-up supply of poison . . . which Rapaport has to smuggle back into the room in his butt. When Skylark is greeted by Kim Jong-un, he discovers how Jong-un is basically just a fanboy and when they spend the day together, Skylark bonds with the dictator and has second thoughts about killing him. After Skylark witnesses Kim Jong-un’s temper, he has a change of heart and embraces the mission . . . though the poison is no longer available to the guys.

The reason The Interview is likely to benefit from the hype is that there is a whole audience of people who are likely to see the film based on the controversy alone. Fans of James Franco and Seth Rogen films have never had so much free publicity. For two of America’s biggest comedic box office draws, the publicity the hackers gave the film is more than enough to make up for the drop in revenue for the film appearing on so many fewer theater screens. Unfortunately, the internal criticisms of The Interview that were leaked as part of the hack are mostly accurate. More than the premise problems, The Interview suffers because it is billed as a comedy and it falls a bit short on that front.

At the outset of The Interview, the film is not very funny because it is establishing the premise and characters. In establishing the characters, The Interview works to make Rapaport serious and smart and the movie makes most of its social commentary there. Despite a pretty overtly hilarious interview with Eminem, much of The Interview is concerned with making social commentary before it degenerates into a bloodbath. As a result, the scenes with Seth Rogen’s Rapaport are a smart dose of realism in an otherwise absurd film premise.

The discontinuity gets worse and goes in a different direction at the hour mark. Despite ridiculous dialog about “pulling out,” The Interview turns disturbing when the poisoned military officer starts to die. Putting himself out of his misery as the ricin kills him, the officer blows off his own head and the shot is one that rivals the on-screen carnage of The Walking Dead. After Skylark commits to the film’s premise, having realized he has been played as a tool of Kim Jong-un, the film turns heavyhanded and, frequently, violent.

The issue here is that The Interview starts surprisingly smart, making a subversive and intelligent commentary on the problems with the American media. The culture is groomed to be stupid and ignorant, focusing on media infotainment instead of substantive journalism. The Interview sets out with that in mind and in its latter half it actually proposes the smartest way to combat Kim Jong-un; destroy his propaganda machine. But then The Interview becomes unhinged. The long sequence focusing on Rapaport sticking the drone’s package up his butt and the protracted bit wherein Rapaport and Sook hook up try desperately to recapture a sense of humor for the movie.

All that is undermined by the film’s final half hour. As the actual interview occurs, violence breaks out. This follows on Skylark realizing he has been lied to, which is an insulting and obvious sequence that overstates what is on screen. As Rapaport tries to hold the control room and the interviewers attempt to escape, The Interview degenerates into violence. Despite that, The Interview does what it sets out to do, which is entertain and while it might not be incredible, it is not the complete lemon it might have been made out to be.

The Interview is a triumph of performances for Randall Park and Lizzy Caplan. While the film is a Rogen/Franco vehicle, it is Park and Caplan who get the film’s most substantive moments as actors. Lizzy Caplan has been in a ton of movies and television works, but she has not had such a substantive role near the top of a cast list like in The Interview. Caplan is serious and completely credible as Agent Lacey, even if her part in The Interview starts out as a display of her cleavage (which is addressed in the film). Randall Park plays Kim Jong-un and he gives a performance that is anything but monolithic. Park presents Jong-un as a master of propaganda and, surprisingly, never really goofy.

Perhaps the funniest lingering aspect of The Interview is that Katy Perry is utilized as a weapon. Beyond that, The Interview is a half-boring, quarter-violent comedy that fails to land more often than it hits, but has an ambitious premise and concept that takes a one-line idea and makes it work better than expected.

For other films currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
To Write Love On Her Arms
The Voices
Love, Rosie
The Seventh Son
Song One
American Sniper
Inherent Vice
Still Alice
The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
The Imitation Game


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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