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Monday, March 9, 2015

Netflix Recommends... The Interview (2014)


Director: Seth Rogan & Evan Goldberg
Starring: Seth Rogan, James Franco

I can't really blame Netflix for this one, as I was genuinely curious about how bad The Interview could be and probably would have seen it at some point eventually anyway (though, as an aside, I continue to be baffled by the fact that Netflix can "recommend" a movie to a user while also predicting that the user will dislike it). Having now seen it, I can say that rarely has a film caused so much fuss without deserving any of it. A comedy devoid of laughs and a political satire lacking in bite, The Interview would already be long forgotten were it not for the fact that for a brief moment it looked like it might spark World War III; instead if will live in infamy, albeit probably less for the international tensions it created than for the leaking of emails about Angelina Jolie.

In the world of The Interview James Franco is Dave Skylark, the host of a popular, but not particularly respected, celebrity talk show, and Seth Rogan is Aaron Rapaport, the show's producer. When they learn that Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) is a big fan of the show, Dave, who loves to be in the limelight, and Aaron, who longs to be taken more seriously by his peers, decide to see if they can arrange an on camera sit down and are promptly delivered the terms of an interview by North Korean propagandist Sook Yung Park (Diana Bang). Once word of the interview goes public, Dave and Aaron are visited by CIA agents Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) and Botwin (Reese Alexander), who inform them that the government would like them to use this opportunity to assassinate Kim. The two reluctantly agree and are given a ricin strip which will allow them to poison Kim via a handshake, as well as a suitcase designed to hide the strip to get it past Kim's security. Dave, however, does not like the look of the bag and at the last minute substitutes his own, more fashionable one, insisting to Aaron that he has the ricin strip thing covered by way of sticking it in a pack of gum. This change in plans goes predictably awry, leaving Dave and Aaron with no means of carrying out the assassination until they're able to communicate their predicament to the CIA, who arrange for a drone to drop a new ricin strip into North Korea. After Aaron retrieves it the plan is once again good to go until Dave finds a different way to screw it up.

While Aaron worries over how to pull off the plot and get out alive while also growing increasingly attracted to Sook, Dave spends time with Kim and becomes convinced that the world has it all wrong about him. As they spend the day driving around in a tank and listening to Katy Perry, playing basketball, and partying with women, Dave and Kim become friends and Dave changes his mind about the assassination. However, after Dave has disposed of the second ricin strip and prevented Aaron from taking the reigns by using a third ricin strip that the CIA dropped with the second, he discovers Kim's true colors. First, he witnesses Kim go on a rant about wanting to destroy the world just to prove that he isn't a joke, and then he takes a closer look at the grocery store that had so impressed him and Aaron on their arrival and learns that it's fake and so is the food inside of it. Feeling betrayed, Dave decides to go ahead with the assassination, however, he and Aaron are talked out of it by Sook, who convinces them that assassination will just result in another bloodthirsty despot taking Kim's place and that what they really need to do is show the world who Kim "really" is.

There's a lot wrong with The Interview, which would just be a typical gross out comedy if its plot didn't turn on the attempted assassination of an actual world leader (though I suppose one might argue that it's to the film's credit that even if it isn't thematically ambitious, it is ambitious in the variety of ways that it seeks to gross you out, from scatological humor to a gory scene in which a character has two fingers bitten off by another characters). Superficially, one of the bigger problems is that Franco crams about twelve movies worth of acting into one performance, sailing well past "endearingly goofy" and into "aggressively annoying" with his rampant mugging. Franco can be an effective comedic actor, one need only look to his previous collaborations with Rogan such as Pineapple Express or to a film like Spring Breakers to see the way that he's capable of getting laughs by merging moments of broad comedy with more subtle ones and bringing dimension to characters who might otherwise be little more than cartoons, but watching him in The Interview is exhausting because he makes every moment so "big" that nothing about it registers beyond its bigness. Ultimately I suppose it doesn't really matter, since the film would be terrible whether Franco delivered a brilliant performance or not, but Franco has never been quite as unbearable on screen as he is here.

Somewhat less superficially, given that the film presents itself as a political satire, is that the narrative is held together less by any form of logic than it is by the sort of sophomoric humor that would be beneath a teenage boy, let alone grown adults who get paid to be funny. While it's obvious that a Hollywood film can't actually end with its protagonists assassinating a ruthless dictator just because they're in a position to do so (that would be far too bold and provocative, so instead the dictator needs to be killed shooting it out with the heroes, making their actions less morally ambiguous), the plan to metaphorically assassinate him by revealing his character to the people of North Korea doesn't make a lick of sense if you pause to think about it for even a moment. Why, for example, would someone as devoted to perpetuating a certain public image of himself as Kim Jong-un agree to do a live interview over which he could have little control if the interviewer decides to go off script? Moreover, even when you lay that aside, how is the plan, which is aimed primarily at reaching the North Korea people and inspiring an uprising, supposed to work when the interview is conducted in English and broadcast without any dubbing? Again, this probably doesn't really matter because the film is ultimately just a bunch of lame jokes strung together and repeated for 112 minutes without any actual political or social voice attached to it. In other hands a premise like this might have been turned into a sharp, risk taking comedy, but no one brought their A game to The Interview and as a result it's a pretty flaccid piece of work both politically and comedically.

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