Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Interview (Columbia Pictures, LStar Capital, Point Grey Pictures, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Interview is the project that started out as just another raunchy modern comedy from the team of James Franco and Seth Rogen, directed by Rogen and his filmmaking partner Evan Goldberg from a story they worked up with Dan Sterling, though Sterling gets sole credit for the actual script. As all the world knows by now, the film casts Franco as Dave Skylark, host of an Entertainment Tonight-style bottom-feeding show whose specialty is getting celebrities to reveal unexpected truths about themselves, especially about their sexual practices — in a rather odd opening scene he interviews Eminem (playing himself) and gets Eminem to reveal that the only reason he recorded those anti-Gay raps was because he’s actually Gay. Rogen plays Aaron Rapoport, Dave’s long-suffering producer who wishes he were on 60 Minutes doing serious news reporting instead of hosting long debates on whether Matthew McConaughey sleeps with goats and the shape of Miley Cyrus’s vagina. Early on in the movie they discover that, though North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un hates America and teaches his people to wish for our utter destruction (the opening is a screamingly funny scene of a North Korean girl singing a bloodthirsty song about this — some of the words, in Korean but helpfully given subtitles, are, “Die America, die. Oh please won’t you die? It would fill my tiny little heart with joy. May your women all be raped by beasts of the jungle while your children are foooorced to watch!”), he’s a big fan of U.S. television in general and two shows — The Big Bang Theory and Dave’s show, Skylark Tonite, in particular. This gives Dave and Aaron the idea to get news cred for their program by asking Kim Jong Un for an interview — at a time when Kim has not only developed a nuclear arsenal but is threatening to launch it and obliterate the west coast of the U.S. Aaron figures out that since North Korea participates in the Olympics there must be some sort of contact between the famously isolated regime and the outside world, he traces it, and within a week Kim’s publicity person, Sook (Diana Bang), has called him back announcing a rendezvous point in China, where — in the middle of nowhere, and leaving Aaron no way to get home — she gets off a helicopter and tells him that Kim will be available for a one-hour interview as long as he and Dave agree to ask only questions that will be pre-scripted in advance from her office. They agree — Aaron says that’s a violation of news protocol but Dave couldn’t care less; he wants the “get” for his low-rated show — and then they’re contacted by the CIA in the person of agents Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) and Botwin (Reese Alexander), who want to recruit — more like order — Dave to “take him out” when they meet Kim for the interview. “For drinks?” asks Aaron. “Take out … like to dinner?” asks Dave.

It suddenly dawns on our two comic naïfs that what the CIA agents really want them to do is use their access to Kim to kill him, and they have an elaborate device for them to do so: a skin patch containing ricin which they are to apply to Kim as he shakes hands with them. (One contributor posted to the “Goofs” section that this is factually inaccurate — according to the Wikipedia page on ricin, it’s poisonous only if “inhaled, injected or ingested” — though I suspect writers Rogen, Goldberg and Sterling deliberately used a murder method that would be ineffective to avoid presenting what the old Production Code called “imitable details of crime” — i.e., they wanted a murder technique you could not try at home.) The CIA outfits Dave with a carrying bag in which they conceal the ricin patch, but Dave decides the bag is unstylish and instead insists on carrying his own and hiding the ricin in chewing gum — whereupon it’s discovered instantly and one of Kim’s security guards chews the gum. The CIA then decides to take two additional patches and ship them to Dave and Aaron via drone — Aaron has to go outside and pick up the projectile containing them, where he’s attacked by a Siberian tiger and saved only when the projectile takes out the tiger, then there’s a long and not especially funny scene in which to hide the projectile from the Korean security guards who are coming to arrest him, Aaron has to shove it up his ass (an all too typical scene in what passes for movie “comedy” these days). Meanwhile, in one of the film’s most genuinely funny sequences, Kim launches an all-out charm offensive on Dave, taking him to fancy meals, shooting hoops with him (reflecting the original inspiration of the story in former basketball star Dennis Rodman’s trip to North Korea to meet the real Kim Jong Un) and showing him a fully-stocked grocery store with a fat kid standing outside to refute the accusation that Kim is starving his people and spending all the government’s money on nuclear weapons. Only when Dave discovers that the grocery store is literally a Potemkin village — all the food in it, including the grapefruit, is fake, replicas made of cement — and he stumbles into a meeting in which Kim goes crazy and announces his intention to nuke half the world just to prove what a great man he is, he’s on board for the assassination plot again; and Sook, apparently a faithful servant of the regime, turns out to be a revolutionary waiting for the chance to get rid of Kim, though she warns Dave that if he kills Kim they’ll just replace him with someone as bad or worse and what he has to do is get Kim to break down on the air so it will embarrass the regime and it will lose all legitimacy in the eyes of the North Korean people.

Needless to say, part of the embarrassment process will be the revelation that Kim Jong Un shits and pisses like any normal person — part of the North Korean propaganda creating his personality cult has been to say that he expends so much energy working tirelessly on behalf of the people that he doesn’t have to excrete in the normal human (or animal) fashion — and there’s a big action climax which involves Aaron getting his fingers bitten off by one of Kim’s security people in the most blatantly fake-looking gross-out comedy scene since the duel with the Green Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Interview got wretched reviews when it was finally issued — after a comedy of errors in which Kim Jong Un, showing himself to be almost as much of an asshole in real life as he’s portrayed in the film, denounced the release of the movie as “an act of war” by the U.S. (and presumably Japan, home base of Columbia’s parent company, Sony) on his country, and a group calling itself the “Guardians of Peace” hacked into Sony’s computer system, stealing complete computer files of five finished films (including the Black remake of Annie) and a lot of embarrassing e-mails in which Columbia executives said, among other things, that they thought President Obama’s taste in movies ran exclusively to ones about Black people and George Clooney had lost his touch with popular taste by making The Monuments Men (which accounts for all those Horn Blows at Midnight-style self-deprecating jokes Clooney made about his film on the Golden Globe Awards). Though the North Korean government denied it, the FBI became convinced that they were behind the Sony hack (this has been questioned by some people who’ve investigated the “Guardians of Peace”’s public statements and suggested that the mistakes in their English are characteristic of people whose native language is Russian, not Korean), and in addition there were threats to attack any theatres that dared show The Interview. So some of America’s biggest theatre chains refused to run the film, Columbia pulled it from release, illegal Internet pirates said they had obtained the film and would put it out if Columbia didn’t, President Obama and others weighed in and attacked Columbia for cowardice in the face of terrorist threats, calling on the studio to support freedom of expression by releasing the movie — which they eventually did, first online and then in whatever theatres would agree to run it. (In San Diego the only place it showed publicly was the Media Arts Center in North Park.)

When The Interview finally came out the critics mostly trashed it — unfairly, I think; it’s hardly in the same league as the classic political satires to which it was inevitably compared (the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove — the last also a Columbia movie) but it’s reasonably entertaining within the limits of the Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg school of comedy. Some of it is genuinely witty and a few bits — particularly Randall Park’s performance as Kim Jong Un, which got singled out by most reviewers as the one bright spot in an otherwise dreary film — even approach pathos. If The Interview has a flaw, it’s in the clash between its ambitions towards political satire and Rogen’s and Goldberg’s knowledge that what their audience wants is raunchy, titillating sex- and drug-soaked humor. Originally Rogen, Goldberg and Sterling were going to take the usual cop-out and make the setting a totally fictional country — which, as I told Charles after we watched it, would have made it more like the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies than the models that inevitably got cited — but then they made the fateful decision to use the real names of North Korea (actually its own name for itself is “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” or “DPRK” for short) and Kim Jong Un. This undoubtedly got the film more public attention than it would have received otherwise — if it had been about a fictional country and dictator it probably would have come and went, reaching the audience Franco and Rogen have built up in their previous films together in the genre but not much beyond that — but it also built up a lot of audience expectations critics gleefully tore down. Indeed, probably the best comment was made by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler as hosts of the Golden Globes; in their introduction they said that by making the film an international cause celêbre in human rights and freedom, “they forced us all to pretend that we really wanted to see it.” For all its raunchiness and frank unbelievability, The Interview is actually a fun film — though I think I liked Pineapple Express, the only previous Franco-Rogen film I’ve seen, better because it was just a stoner comedy (the title referred to an especially potent strain of marijuana supposedly developed by the U.S. government in the 1930’s as a possible bioweapon) without the satirical pretensions of The Interview. I could probably go on yes-butting The Interview all day, but for all its weaknesses it’s still good clean dirty fun, hardly a deathless classic but still entertaining to watch.