Saturday, January 03, 2015

"The Interview": review

There were moments, while I was watching "The Interview," during which it was hard for me to know whether to laugh or to be offended. In general, my default mode is to side with the politically incorrect—to risk a little uncomfortable racism for the sake of free speech as opposed to becoming repressively self-righteous and condemnatory every time someone even seems culturally insensitive. There are, for example, a few scenes in the film during which both James Franco and Seth Rogen speak in a potentially off-putting, stereotypical East Asian pidgin. Franco's "we are same-same" speech at the airport in Pyongyang is particularly cringeworthy. Ultimately, though, I didn't view these moments as racist: I saw them instead as jokes about American cultural ignorance.

Let's talk about Franco for a bit. There are a lot of James Franco haters out there. I don't think I realized just how many there were until I finally noticed all the Franco jokes and parodies online. Years ago, I wrote a book-length review of Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man 3" in which I praised Franco for the way he handled the Harry Osborn character. In "Spider-Man 3," Harry starts off as vengeful, gets amnesia and turns puppydog-friendly after receiving a blow to the head, then regains his memories and turns evil again before finally reconciling with Peter Parker right before he dies. Franco basically had to play four different characters in varying states of mental health, and I thought he did an excellent job despite the movie's overall flaws. I've seen Franco in other films as well, such as "127 Hours" (review pending), "Pineapple Express," and "This Is the End," and think he's got a great sense of comic timing. (I suspect I may be alone in thinking this.) "The Interview" is made by the same team that gave us "Pineapple Express" and "This Is the End," so Franco is once again asked to show his comic chops. As Dave Skylark, a man who is both twit and twat, Franco does a good job of incarnating all that is obnoxious and stupid about Americans and American culture. "The Interview" is strange because, with Franco as the wild guy, Seth Rogen is forced to play the straight man in this pairing. Rogen handles his role well, and comes off convincingly as the smarter of the two.

So James Franco is the vacuous TV talking head Dave Skylark, a man who has made his career doing fluff interviews for his substance-free show, "Skylark Tonight," a broadcast on which you might see Rob Lowe reveal that he's actually bald, or Eminem confess to being gay. (Eminem has been a surprisingly good sport when it comes to self-parody; he's milked the gay thing before with Sacha Baron Cohen, for example.) Seth Rogen plays Skylark's faithful-yet-troubled producer buddy Aaron Rapoport (whose surname is inconsistently pronounced in both the French and English manner). Aaron has helped Dave become a huge media success, but he secretly harbors a desire to do legitimate news. Strangely enough, it's Dave who comes to Aaron with the revelation that none other than Kim Jeong-eun is a fan of "Skylark Tonight." Aaron manages to snag the interview and is whisked off to China for a tense meeting with North Korea's propaganda unit to discuss the terms of the interview, at which point the American CIA takes an interest in the project. Skylark and Rapoport are asked by luscious agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) to assassinate North Korea's leader by using a time-release, ricin-infused poison strip, concealed in the palm of the hand and delivered via handshake.

Once in North Korea, Dave is wined and dined by Kim Jeong-eun himself, while Aaron and the North Korean propaganda minister Park Sook-young begin to discover they are intensely attracted to each other. Dave, very much a dim bulb, is taken in by Kim's manipulative painting of a rosy picture of life in North Korea and begins to think twice about assassinating the leader; Aaron, meanwhile, finds an ally in Sook, who secretly despises the regime and longs to overturn it. It's when Dave finally realizes that Pyongyang is essentially a Potemkin village, and that Kim is a megalomanic psychopath who has been lying to him, that his sense of betrayal brings him back on track with the CIA's original mission to do Kim in.

"The Interview" is a stupid comedy and nothing more, really. Whether it's worth all the fuss that's been made of it is beyond my capacity to judge. Is it potentially racist, sexist, and all the rest? Yeah, sure, why not, but what do you expect from a Rogen-Franco comedy? If the movie is competently subtitled and ferreted into North Korea, it might provide some oppressed citizens with a naughty chuckle or two, but I don't see that it could ever serve as a true catalyst for revolution. However, North Korea-watcher Barbara Demick, the journalist who wrote Nothing to Envy (which I reviewed here), recently wrote an article in praise of what "The Interview" actually gets right about the harsh realities of North Korea. Demick's article is worth your while.

Overall, I thought "The Interview" had quite a few laugh-out-loud moments. Any scene involving controlled substances (and there were, sadly, too few such scenes) was a riot. The movie is not as terrible as some have made it out to be, but it's also not as clever as it could have been. It doesn't flinch from accusing the real North Korea of all manner of crimes, and that's very much to its credit (hats off to the writers and producers). Unfortunately, the climactic action scene was boilerplate 1980s "Rambo III" tank-versus-helicopter nonsense, but the movie was saved by the Korean actors (all of whom seemed to speak Korean with strong gyopo accents as opposed to anything sounding remotely North Korean). Diana Bang as Sook and Randall Park as Kim Jeong-eun were both hilarious in their roles. In many cases, I'd say they stole the scenes they shared with Rogen and Franco.

One last thought: Dave Skylark might be an airhead, but he seemed to love evoking The Lord of the Rings. At a surprise party in honor of his friend and inspiration, Aaron, Dave says: "You are the Samwise Gamgee to my Frodo Baggins. You are the Gandalf to my Bilbo Baggins. But of all The Lord of the Rings references that I could make, this is the most important: I'm Gollum... and you're my Precious! Sméagol needs Aaron!" Boromir gets a mention later on, too, among all the butthole, stink-dick, hard-on, and pussy/honeypotting jokes.

If you're a North Korea-watcher, you won't learn anything new from "The Interview." If you're an oversensitive, politically correct, humorless asshole, you won't appreciate the racial/cultural jokes. If you're not a fan of potty humor, you may as well give up now. But if, like Barbara Demick, you see this film as getting crucial facts right about North Korea, you might just consider this movie to be a finger in the eye of the murderous Kim regime. And Diana Bang is pretty damn cute when she lets her hair down.



John (I'm not a robot) said...

Excellent work as usual, Mr. Kim. I shared this on my blog with a few thoughts of my own as well.

John from Daejeon said...

Franco has been Tolkiening it up since his days as Carlos the Dwarf with his buddies Rogen and Caplan on the little show that launched a career or two, including that of the writer of "Horrible Bosses," the new "Vacation" reboot, and "The $40,000 Man." Oh, yeah, he just happened to play the lead geek as well.

But Franco saves his very best Tolkien riff (and obscure reference) for last year's little Kickstarter movie that could.

John from Daejeon said...

I wan't exactly blown away by "The Interview," but it was at least worth watching compared to the abysmal Disney hodgepodge that is "Into the Woods." Never has a greater group of talented artists been in a such a stinker of a film. I bet CBS is kicking itself for getting rid of Craig Ferguson in favor of James Corden. And while every kid in the U.S., England, and Japan can break into song at the drop of an obscure "Frozen" reference, I'd bet the farm on not a single kid in the world coming out of "Into the Woods" singing a lick of any of the films entirely forgettable soundtrack.