The Interview will never get to be the movie it wanted to be. Conceived as a silly comedy about a shallow US celebrity talk show host and his producer conscripted to kill the leader of North Korea, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s second directorial effort (following last year’s pleasant This is the End) is now always going to be about the absurdity that surrounded it in the weeks leading up to its release. It will be known as the movie that got Sony hacked (regardless of whether this is actually true), the movie that led to terroristic threats against movie theater chains, twisting it into some sort of bizarrely misguided emblem of freedom of speech and national patriotism (one theater offered free popcorn to anyone who presented a copy of the Constitution, which is mystifying on a number of levels). Many will see this movie, many of them for all the wrong reasons.
Written by Dan Sterling from Rogen and Goldberg’s (and Sterling’s) story ideas, The Interview stars Rogen in the producer role as Aaron Rapaport, and frequent collaborator James Franco (dating all the way back to their days on Freaks and Geeks) as Dave Skylark, host of Skylark Tonight. Upon discovering they have a fan in Kim Jong-un (Randall Park), supreme leader of North Korea, they agree to travel to Pyongyang to conduct an interview on international television. Behind the scenes, they have been contacted by the CIA through Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) to take advantage of their close proximity to Kim in order to deliver a lethal dose of poison. Not long after their arrival, the plan deteriorates, and they are forced to improvise with the help of North Korea’s turncoat propaganda manager (Diana Bang).
Rogen and Goldberg are not approaching The Interview as a biting satire or political statement or condemnation of North Korea. It is satirical, sure, but it casts a wide net and takes no prisoners in its farcical pursuits. By the time the credits roll, the subject most worthy of ridicule is Skylark himself. Franco plays him as the most simpering of sycophants, a man with no sense of honor or obligation, only concerned with cultivating his own fame. He’s the sort of man more than willing to make friends with his enemy regardless of the actions that got him to the fame Skylark seeks. Rapaport is a more measured individual, a television producer who is aware of the shortcomings of his product but appreciates the notoriety it brings. Rogen plays him more as a kindly oaf with good intentions; he only makes bad decisions accidentally. He’s short-sighted, sure, but noble in his own way. He finds himself concerned when peers insult the intellectual wasteland that is his show. Skylark just writes them off as jealous.
The film has two clear halves, the one set in the US and the one in North Korea, and its scope widens considerably after departing American shores. The design hearkens back to films like Stripes and Full Metal Jacket, though the tone remains uniformly light throughout. It certainly feels like a Rogen/Goldberg comedy, with the same sort of jokes that has come to be expected after films like Superbad and This is the End. There is, however and unfortunately, a marked difference in the quality of those jokes when it comes to The Interview. Perhaps the case is simply the fact that Rogen and Goldberg did not write the script, though that has to be murky waters considering Rogen starred in the film and is a fan of improv, but regardless of the point of origin, it is undeniable that the jokes do not land as hard as they have in the past. For the first time, one of these comedies feels conventional and staid, not quite going through the motions but not far from it, and the momentum of the film lags because of it.
Another potential disease vector for the problems that ail The Interview is Franco’s performance. Over his career, James Franco has played a wide range of characters, from straight man to stoner to whatever Spring Breakers would be considered, but this performance is probably his most overtly comedic and silly. Dave Skylark is loud and obnoxious, mugging his way through the proceedings, and the combination of weaker material and this ostentatious approach to the character is a weight on the neck of the film. Rogen is predominantly his same old self, and Randall Park deserves quite a bit of credit for his surprisingly empathetic portrayal of Kim Jong-un; the film is definitely much more kind to the people of North Korea than one might expect.
Hidden heart and the importance of has always been a hallmark of the Rogen/Goldberg partnership, and this aspect is surely present in The Interview, though the subject of the friendship may not have been what was expected. Still, this is another quadrant in which the film sags, and another case of it just feeling like it is less than its predecessors. The story is fine, the characters are fine, but the jokes are subpar, and fine is not enough to overcome that. Some may dislike The Interview because it does not live up to the lofty heights its media coverage has created for it, but the real reason to dislike The Interview is because it does not live up to the relatively understated heights of previous Rogen/Goldberg collaborations. It was never going to be equal to its status as North Korean public enemy number one, the film that caused a minor international incident. But it should have lived up to This is the End or Superbad and did not, which is where the true disappointment lies.