It’s nigh impossible to shake the weight of expectation saddling The Interview after the fracas it’s caused its production studio. Heavy enough that it’s the latest from Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, a duo that have emerged from the Apatow stable of film comics and steered projects both bonkers and story-focussed enough to turn critics’ heads (This Is the End, writing credit on Superbad). Now that North Korea have allegedly played into the very same destructive bluster that Rogen and Goldberg play on and stoked a blaze of free-speech protestations, there’s a hovering impression that the two have suddenly gained a Dr. Strangelove-level nous for destructive satire. Really, their nous is for what we would normally expect: the same kinda-sweet crassness people knowingly love or dread from them at this stage, with the added notion that it’s been long enough since a major American comedy flung a cream pie at that particular dictatorship (i.e. over a decade since Team America in 2004).
They also continue to work well with their friends. James Franco acts in marvellously broad strokes as Dave Skylark, a TV host who makes his living interviewing big names in a private setting, live to air. He and his producer Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen) run a prolific game in their E!-riffing niche, but Aaron is craving the kind of serious journalism he aspired to before going down that trashy road, where he covers the looming threat of a national dictator rather than the gossip item it interrupts where Eminem casually admits to homosexuality.1 Dave then comes bounding into Aaron’s office with a Wikipedia printout on none other than Kim Jong-Un, pointing feverishly at one detail: the dictator is on the record saying that he’s a fan of the show. After much hoop-jumping,2 they bag the you-know-what and party into the night, waking up the next day to a surprise meeting from CIA Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan), who instructs them to be the Agency’s field agents in a plot to assassinate President Kim and kickstart a democratic revolution from within. They play ball at first, but as Dave develops an unexpected friendship with the boyish ruler (Randall Park, far and away the movie’s manic MVP), their motives begin to skew in increasingly bombastic ways.
Story-wise, the narrative proceeds in a mostly engaging way – Aaron wants to step up his journalistic bona-fides, Kim wants to leave his father’s looming shadow, and Dave is a bounding puppy dog running for affection between the two of them. This creates a nice trio of engaging leads with established incentive for doing whatever they’re doing at a given moment. Each actor plays to those strengths, with Park in particular running away with the film in his magnetic pull, though even Rogen is afforded some nice moments of understatement to cut against his usual persona. Likewise, plot information is dispensed at a nice pace,and always within the established voice of the character doing it. It’s sad that something so obvious-sounding comes as a nice surprise, but the fact is that, through the veneer of swearing and dick jokes, Rogen and Goldberg are giving narrative momentum way more focus than the Horrible Bosseses of the world ever do. The general toothlessness of their portrayal of North Korea (i.e. reproductions of the same gonzo myths about their President that you’ve heard if you’ve heard anything about him) strangely makes these aspects more engaging as a trade-off. And save for a few moments so green-screened as to resemble a mo-cap Zemeckis film, it’s visually pleasing as well, imbued with some of the nutty energy of cinematographer Brandon Trost’s past work (MacGruber, Crank: High Voltage) and fittingly scored by blockbuster mainstay Henry Jackman (Captain America: The Winter Soldier). It’s by no means a lazy effort.
Unfortunately, it’s these story strengths that highlight a nagging shortcoming. It’s fine to watch the film descend into violence and chaos as it continues, but those base instincts bite back through an ill-considered approach to a large portion of its main cast. The model for current studio comedies is for female characters to exist solely as a voice of reason for the free-wheeling male idiots at the centre, and there are small glimpses here that Rogen and Goldberg have become aware of that, which are too quickly obscured. They highlight the sexism in the boys’ assumption that Agent Lacey is seducing them into serving the nation, right after shooting her in a way that is fully intended to titillate a male audience. Similarly, North Korean official Sook (Diana Bang) ravenously craves sex with Aaron and gets it in a tiresome romantic subplot, only for a later conversation to try and paint this as masterful manipulation on her part. Both actresses clearly try their hardest, but their characters (which, it bears repeating, occupy a notable amount of screentime) ring like script notes implemented clumsily into a late draft, and ring especially false next to other ill-considered moments like a party sequence full of nameless bikini wearers.
What wins out over that misstep is an overall tone of affability. There is a scene where Dave and his newfound dictator best pal tear up the countryside in a tank to the tune of Katy Perry’s “Firework”, and it sums up the film’s intentions better than any irate cable-news speculation has approached.3 You have to wonder what film mavericks of the future divorced from our current brouhaha will make of it, and I’d wager they’ll find a thing no smarter or sillier than the other films in this decade’s comedic canon. Just ignite the light, let it shine and have a good time already.