For all the hullabaloo surrounding its release, from the hackers to the threats to the studio waffling and beyond, the new Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy The Interview has only minor pleasures to offer. With its high concept, dirty jokes, sporadic violence, casual insensitivity, and queasy morality, it’s the kind of movie that, were it made in the 1970s, would be a staple of exploitation pictures recommended by Tarantino. There’s a spirited absurdity to the whole endeavor that finds Franco and Rogen as a talk show host and his producer who land an interview with Kim Jong-un, ruler of North Korea, and are promptly asked by the CIA to help them carry out an assassination. It’s one part fish-out-of-water buddy comedy, one part spy spoof, and one part bloody satire. The whole thing’s deeply silly and omnidirectionally offensive.
Franco’s talk show is positioned as a vapid gossip peddler. He’s a force of personality who gets confessional interviews out of celebrities, a sort of super dumb Dick Cavett. He’s a total idiot, a self-absorbed nonsense man so totally lost in his own media stardom he’s convinced every thought he has is worth sharing. His producer, on the other hand, has aspirations of doing more important work. He’s the one who figures out how to land this monumental interview. Though, to be fair, he’s smarter than his boss, he’s only marginally less bumbling in practice. A CIA agent (Lizzy Caplan, excellent as always) gives them a scant briefing, some secret poison, and lets them on their way to meet with a dictator and take him down. It’s a dubious plan, but, despite utilizing a real country’s actual ruler as a character and target, this isn’t a movie big on sense.
Most of the movie plays out in Kim’s vast grey compound as the two guys stumble their way around, trying not to mess up the mission and utterly failing most of the time. There are real jabs at North Korean ills – famine, executions, propaganda, isolation – mixed into scenes of technical malfunctions, missed connections, and endless coarse banter between the leads. Rogen’s the straight man, while Franco delivers a weirdly artificial performance in which every gesture, every line is letting us know he’s in on the joke. It rarely works. Funniest, even lovable at times, is Kim himself, played with charisma and sly charm by Randall Park as an insecure guy who just wants his guests to like him.
Best is the relationship they develop, as the talk show host finally meets a man as egocentric and needy as he is. There’s something biting in there about an American celebrity, especially one in something like the news business, finding much in common with a dictator. But the film’s largely sloppy as satire, blending sharp commentary and free-range goofiness. There’s also a heaping helping of the typical R-rated bro comedy’s crutches of so-called ironic sexism, racism, and gay panic, masked with a thin veil of knowing wink-wink ain’t-this-awful posturing. It’s part of the film’s broad jumble of potent nihilistic cynicism and gross out gags.
The film was helmed by Rogen and Evan Goldberg, writing partners whose directorial debut was last year’s funny-at-times, and even sloppier, This is the End. Here they wrangle their story, scripted by Dan Sterling, into a mix of bro hangout, male anxieties, and satiric jabs, until culminating in an absurdly violent third-act shootout. It’s a big, hard-edged, live action cartoon, at its best when it steers straight into the absurdity. I especially liked a recurring Katy Perry song used to undercut, and later amplify, tension, the right kind of dopily weird. Otherwise, it’s a mixture of easy geopolitical points, mild media teasing, and sex, drugs, and poop jokes.
The comedy is hit-and-miss, and it’s too goofy to offend as much as it wants. But in the end, the worldview on display through the parade of idiots and violence is more scathing than maybe it thinks. At one point a North Korean propagandist (Diana Bang) discovers their plan to enact a CIA-backed overthrow of a foreign dictator and asks, “How many times will America make the same mistake?” Franco shouts back, “As many times as we have to!” Here’s a movie that says the whole world’s supremely screwed up – with dumb Americans, cruel dictators, and the empty-headed media rhetoric of them both – and the only people who eke out a win are those whose buffoons control the message.