Separating Seth Rogen’s terrific comedy, “The Interview,” from the hype and controversy that surrounds it may be an impossible task for a reviewer. Even before it was denounced by North Korea as a national threat and an insult, which prompted Sony Pictures to pull the movie from mainstream distribution, it was easily the most talked about trailer for a comedy in years – at least in my neighborhood.
The film tells the story of television producer Aaron Rapoport (played by Rogen) and celebrity talk show host Dave Skylark (played by James Franco), who find out that the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un (played by Randall Park) is a fan of their show just as the two decide that they want to raise the level of their program from pure gossip to legitimate journalism.
Soon after this, Kim, universally seen as one of the world’s most diabolical dictators, agrees to have Skylark and Rapoport fly to North Korea for an exclusive interview, which prompts the CIA to set the two up on a mission to assassinate Kim with a dose of ricin administered by a handshake that Skylark is to have on an adhesive strip on the palm of his hand.
The two promptly make the trip to Pyongyang, where they spend a few days before the interview, during which Rogen becomes close with Kim’s very attractive communications director Sook (played by Diana Bang) and Skylark becomes close to Kim, who is turning on the charm in order to have Skylark treat him like a friend during the interview.
This is familiar. CIA agent Lacey (played by Lizzy Caplan) uses a few seductive ploys to get the Skylark and Rapoport to agree to their mission in the first place. Then Kim uses liquor, gals and false friendship to seduce Skylark into trusting him before the interview. These two are being played — and they are only dimly aware of it.
There are several layers of brilliance at play. Rogen’s deadpan schtick matched up with a Woody Allen-like plot is one reason the film works. “The Interview” also shows Rogen is a master at situational comedy. Who needs a funny script, when just having Kim on a basketball court trying to dunk a ball is good enough.
Pointedly, just the idea of assassinating a character on film, who is one of the world’s most notorious dictators in real life is an act of situational defiance that would put any writer, actor, director, in rarefied company. This is performance art in real time with all the potential of another “Borat.” Besides that, Rogen’s cerebral wit and Franco’s gut-level honesty playing off of each other – how perfect! Plus, they both have a ready appetite for childish humor.
A week before its opening, however, the whole beautiful scenario unraveled as North Korea, authorities in the United States and South Korea say, hacked into Sony Pictures computers, issuing threats that theaters that showed the film would be attacked or bombed. Sony, at that point, pulled the film from mainstream distribution, relegating it to independent theaters only and a release available through YouTube.
That said, “The Interview,” falls shy of the threat it would have been to have Borat visit Pyongyang. This is a mainly conventional comedy — silly more often than brilliant, but brilliant enough to make it very enjoyable and very recommendable. Frankly, though, I thought the film did not realize its full potential. It comes off as an early Woody Allen – a great idea, some over the top moments, but too many times when it falls back on convention.
If you are going to be silly, a love scene between Rapoport and Sook, while he has the deadly ricin dose attached to his palm — forcing them to make love without hands — should have been a tour de force moment in comedic history. It’s funny, but it falls short of history-making comedy for reasons hard to pin down. Rogen is witty, but not the greatest physical actor. Bang is attractive, but not the greatest of comediennes.
There is an underlying indecision, as well. A farce is great, requires a willingness to break down barriers. This one breaks down few, then gets more timid as it goes along.
Overall, think Mel Brooks (director of “Blazing Saddles”) instead of Stanley Kubrick (director of “Dr. Strangelove”).
Having said that, think Mel Brooks with a much drier wit. Brooks’ films are bright and full of gags. Rogen, who is more script-oriented, is better than Brooks at playing one character off of another.
That isn’t to say it isn’t great to have this in-your-face comedy brighten up the holiday week. “The Interview” is being shown by select independent theaters, having been yanked from mainstream distribution, and it is also available as a YouTube download, which is how I got a chance to view it.
Personally, I don’t think North Korea’s tantrum over the film raised its profile from also-ran to instant legend. I think it had cult status written all over it for the high school aged audience even before its release, just for its delicious defiance alone.