Yes, of course everyone's talking about The Interview. And, yes, of course everybody is talking about The Interview for all the wrong reasons, as expected. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's latest comedy has become a flashpoint in the media battle for freedom of expression, so much so that merely by watching this goofy, juvenile farce you, dear viewer, are taking a stand against technological surveillance, political blackmail and the like.
You kind of wish that all the idealistic, noble stances had been generated by the film itself rather than by the circumstances surrounding it - to wit, the much-reported hacking of Sony Pictures' computer systems and the resulting diplomatic incident with North Korea, whose leader Kim Jong-Un is the target of a CIA assassination attempt in the plot.
Which is not to say The Interview is a disaster. It's simply a not very good comedy that crumbles under the weight placed on its shoulders. Doubly ironic since the real subject of the film isn't so much North Korea's reclusive, totalitarian regime as it is the contemporary media coverage saturation of useless, frothy information, and the way it's undermining actual, real-issues, serious journalism.
The heart of the film is Aaron Rapaport (Mr. Rogen, likable but hardly stretching), a journalism graduate who surrendered his dreams of serious reporting to become producer of a trashy talk show headlined by the conceited and clueless Dave Skylark (James Franco, giving free rein to his smarminess). Aaron's yearning for the noble thrill of breaking important stories is what starts the film's engine, when Kim Jong-Un (a dazzling Randall Park) is revealed to be a fan of American trash culture and offers the programme an exclusive interview - assuming, of course, that no serious questions will be asked. The CIA - in the shape of a seductive agent played by Lizzy Caplan - decides to co-opt Aaron and Dave to dispose of Kim, turning the film into a perfect mirror image of its central plot point.
Just as Aaron's idealism and Dave's cluelessness throw them obliviously into a dangerous situation, so do Mr. Rogen, Mr. Goldberg and screenwriter Dan Sterling find themselves in over their heads, playing with fire without any real understanding of the possible consequences. The Interview does not have the comedic and narrative chops to reach Chaplinesque or Lubitschesque heights of political satire (elegance is not these guys' forte, even if the film has a nice, glossy sheen to it) - not that it stops the filmmakers from bumbling into that territory out of enthusiasm and sincerity.
They come closer to stuff like Mel Brooks' 1960s TV spy spoof Get Smart!, especially in the film's middle act, where it really grinds into gear as an espionage comedy anchored on the unlikely "bromance" between Dave and the pop-culture-obsessed Kim to the strains of Katy Perry's "Firework". But once the real stakes are put through in very real blood and guts, The Interview is unable to hold on to its cheeky, larky tone, miscalculating so seriously the introduction of violence that it stops the viewer in its tracks.
There may be a possible double standard at work here: we're ready to accept Quentin Tarantino rewriting history with Inglorious Bastards or Django Unchained, because he's a "serious" filmmaker (though one not above using gallows humour or pop-culture references to leaven his violence), but a comedy that dares to make fun of North Korea, even resorting to penile jokes and pop-star references, is out of bounds? As if comedy was an inherently second-class genre, especially coming from practitioners known for their goofiness but who have a genuine modern genre classic (Superbad) and a rather clever meditation on the genre's own meta-fictional lawyers (This Is the End) under their belts?
That doesn't change that Messrs. Rogen and Goldberg are no Tarantino. For all the nice line in self-referential humour, The Interview is at most a half-baked effort. It scores on daring to break free of the thematic stereotypes of American comedy while reinforcing them, but it's a lot tamer than it should be for all the outrage it has generated.
Cast James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park
Directors Mr. Rogen and Evan Goldberg; screenwriter Dan Sterling; from a story by Messrs. Sterling, Rogen and Goldberg; cinematographer Brandon Trost (colour, widescreen); composer Henry Jackman; designer Jon Billington; costumes Carla Hetland; editors Zene Baker and Evan Henke; effects supervisor Paul Linden; producers Mr. Rogen, Mr. Goldberg and James Weaver; production companies Columbia Pictures and Point Grey Pictures in association with LStar Capital
Screened December 26th 2014, Lisbon