Starring James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan and Randall Park
Directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen
Rated R for pervasive language, crude and sexual humor, nudity, some drug use and bloody violence
by Tommy Durbin
By now everyone has heard of the major controversy behind Seth Rogen and James Franco’s latest film, “The Interview.” If anyone heard of any movie news in the past few months, Sony pulling this film from theaters because of threats to moviegoers who went to the film was probably the most interesting tidbit. It harkens back to the “South Park” episodes that were pulled because of threats from a radical group in New York who took offense to the show’s depiction of Mohammed and threatened violence if the episodes weren’t pulled from the air. Only this time, instead of an important religious figure, the target of Rogen and Franco’s scrutiny is the mysterious leader of the equally mysterious nation of North Korea, home to the only Communist dynasty in history.
If I was being honest, a fair amount of the hype from the film comes from the controversy surrounding it. If it was released without incident, it would probably make a few million above its budget and we’d move on from it after a few months or so, filing it away in our list of typical Rogen and Franco films. However, now this is the film that North Korean terrorists wanted to bomb America for, or something like that. Gosh, now I have to see it! And you know what? It worked! I watched this movie with my fiancée and future mother and brother-in-law because they had heard about the controversy and wanted to see it. They would never have picked it up otherwise. It’s not really their kind of movie. But now with the hype around it, they had to check it out. They were curious, and admittedly, so was I.
So what’s the film about? Rogen and Franco play two people who run a tabloid TV show and both of them want to get more exposure. They find out that the brutal North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is a die-hard fan of their show, particularly Franco’s character, who is the host. Rogen and Franco are contacted by Jong-un’s people who ask him if he wants to interview Jong-un to set the record straight about what North Korea is really like. Rogen and Franco accept, but are first contacted by the CIA. The CIA wants the two of them to assassinate Kim Jong-un. The rest of the film is about the two of them bungling their way through North Korea, deciding whether or not to assassinate this world leader who, at least for Franco, doesn’t seem like such a bad guy after all.
One of the major flaws of the film is Franco’s character. When a character’s stupidity is all that moves the plot forward, it’s not really a good sign. He does things that no real person above the age of, say, nine would do just so there’s conflict, not just in terms of “will Kim be assassinated after all” but in terms of his relationship with Rogen. The worst part is there’s no reason for it. Sure, he befriends Kim and has second thoughts so sometimes he’s obtuse about things, but that makes sense because he has motivation for his behavior. He doesn’t want to see his cool new friend die horribly. But it goes beyond that. There are moments when he does something stupid just so there will be tension in the scene. No real adult acts the way he does, and it starts to be grating quickly.
Now, the moronic protagonist who is stupid for the sake of keeping the plot going is a rather common trope, annoyingly enough, but there are times when it can be handled correctly if done perfectly. The best example I have seen is from the TV show, “Archer.” The titular protagonist’s poor behavior will often start the conflict and/or keep it going. However, if you look at his character, his behavior makes sense. He received no love as a child, he never knew his father, his mother was never around, and he’s gone through more highly traumatic experiences than any human deserves. In the present day, he’s constantly praised as the “world’s greatest spy”, he has a ton of money, women and power, and he gets to do a lot of really cool stuff. He hasn’t developed emotionally to the point where he can handle that in a mature way. He has no self-esteem and his domineering, emotionally abusive mother is his boss, so he acts the way he does because it’s a better alternative to being an emotional wreck that can’t function in day-to-day life. So, when he does something stupid and self-centered, thinking more about having fun than the mission, it makes sense.
However, this is not the case with Franco’s character. Again, when he gets in the way of things because he wants to protect his new friend, it makes sense because he’s developed a connection with this guy and doesn’t want him dead. But there is no real reason for a lot of his behavior, something that even Rogen’s character realizes. It makes the conflict forced, and it takes me out of the movie.
Conflict is very important in a movie. It’s arguably the most important thing. Without conflict there’s no story.
However, conflict needs to flow naturally. The actions of all of the characters have to come together in a reasonable way so that the goals of the protagonists and the goals of the antagonists don’t mesh, thereby causing conflict. If the way it comes about is: “We don’t know how to move the story forward, so we’ll make the protagonist say and do something stupid for no real reason,” it’s not a good sign. It shows that the filmmakers don’t really have a good grasp on the story and the characters.
Also, a lot of the humor falls really flat. This is a Rogen/Franco movie, so humor is a big draw, and the audience knows right off the bat that it will be a central part of the film. The two have had successful collaborations before, most notably “Pineapple Express” and “This is the End” The two seem to be trying for a bit of an Abbott and Costello vibe, but they mostly fail, because while the relationship is a bit similar, Abbott and Costello is funny because they never forced jokes, and they certainly didn’t keep them running too long. I can’t say the same about Rogen and Franco here.
Now, I know I’ve been ripping on this film a lot, making it seem like there’s nothing good about it. That’s actually not the case. Franco and Rogen, for all of the flaws in their humor, actually do have excellent screen chemistry. I watch the two of them and believe that their characters have been friends for a long time. On top of that, there are some legitimately funny moments in the film. They actually had a scene or two in there where I was laughing out loud, something that I didn’t expect from the film. When they knock it out of the park, they knock it out of the park.
Also, I rip on Franco’s character for being an idiot for the sake of it, but, actually, he has a character arc: something else I didn’t expect. He matures during the film because of the experiences he endures. His character develops the most throughout the film, and given that he’s largely there to be the funny one to Rogen’s straight man, this is rather refreshing. Characters like his tend to be pretty static, given that they’re not there to be people so much as joke factories.
Randall Park, whom “The Office” fans might recognize as “Asian Jim,” shines as Kin Jong-un, giving a performance with some layers. Sometimes. In how he acts he’s quite good, going from brutal, manipulative dictator to a guy who you want to have a margarita with at the drop of a hat. That takes talent. I’m one of the people who votes for the Razzie awards (the anti-Oscars essentially) so I choose which films are nominated and ultimately win the awards such as Worst Picture, Worst Actor and so on. Park was in the running for Worst Supporting Actor. I don’t see it. He did a really good job with the material he was given.
However, often not even the best actors can act their way through a bad script, and the writers’ attempts to give Jong-un some depth fall flat on their faces. It kind of gets hard to watch sometimes. They have good intentions, and most of the time films like this don’t even try for anything resembling character, but you also have to acknowledge when it doesn’t work.
The biggest strength for the movie, though? The titular interview. I found myself rather surprised, but it was really good. The first half, anyway. It delivers a lot of payoffs that have been coming throughout the film, showing that the screenwriters have a nice attention to detail. Not only that, but it’s a tense scene that I honestly don’t want to spoil for you. The film is actually kind of worth checking out for it alone.
Once it’s over, though, turn it off. Actually, turn it off after the first half. It starts as a showdown, with the two biggest personalities of the film matching wits against each other, but it dissolves into eye-rolling silliness, and all of the quality of the moments thus far just evaporate.
And honestly? That sums up the film as a whole. Sure I could nitpick every single detail or every joke that didn’t work, but ultimately the film fails because every time it looks like it might have a funny joke or a nice moment, it takes it one or two steps too far.
With a little restraint on the part of the screenwriters this could have been a really funny movie. I realize that the Rogen/Franco/Goldberg trifecta specialize in this kind of loud, crass, over-the-top humor and they have made it work, but that doesn’t mean that restraint on some level is unnecessary. It’s kind of like how if a tense scene goes on too long, the tension evaporates and the audience loses interest. If a comedian grins, nudges you in the ribs, and winks one too many times while telling (or re-telling) a joke, you stop laughing and start getting annoyed.
Overall, “The Interview” is a mixed bag. It has definite talent behind it, but the talent is ultimately squandered, save for a few clever scenes. Which is really too bad, because if you dig a little, it shows that they put effort into this film. The fake grocery stores portrayed in the film, as well as the rumor that the Kims are so holy that they don’t even need to use the toilet are legitimate parts of life in North Korea. With one more rewrite from a comedian with a more restrained sense of humor, this could have actually been a decent film. Not a masterpiece, but worth a look.
Final Score: 4/10
Tommy Durbin is a UNC senior with a minor in film and the film columnist for The Claw. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.