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“How many times can the U.S. make the same mistakes?” a beleaguered North Korean citizen prompts James Franco and Seth Rogen’s journalists-turned-spies in the new, and highly publicized, comedy The Interview. The response? “As many times as it takes!” The quote, not only well delivered by Franco (and one of his character’s very few high points in the movie), is emblematic of Franco and Rogen’s film career to date.
Though the statistic sounds crazily off, the duo have only been in two movies together previously: Pineapple Express and This is the End. Individually they have made some good comedies, but nothing so stratospheric as to reach instant-classic level popularity (perhaps closest either has come is 2007’s Knocked Up). They have made a career out of playing affable doofuses, and continue the charade in The Interview, a movie that sees the two funny men – and the funny team behind the scenes – making the same averagely funny movie with the same mistakes yet again, this time in North Korea. It’s a movie with a few genuinely funny moments whose political and social lampoonery far exceeds its grasp.
And therein lies the problem: these guys are funny, there’s no argument there. But their movies all-too-often do not feel worthy of them. I like This is the End and Neighbors quite a bit, but they are both so lumbering and awkwardly structured, both more preoccupied with setting up jokes than setting up any resemblance of a meaningful story arc, that they feel slap-dash and often insincere. They have great qualities – End‘s stance on male relationships and Neighbor‘s tackling of growing older but not growing up – but they sometimes get lost in the mess of things.
Which is where The Interview comes in, a movie with a premise ripe for satire and a world watching as online wars are waged on its behalf. Is it any good, though? Yes, and no, unfortunately. Like Rogen and Franco’s previous films, it wastes too much of its near two hour run-time grasping at low-hanging fruit, like a few drastically uninspired Lord of the Rings jokes, instead of making smart, skewering social satire. It’s sporadically funny, and has one of the most zealously over-the-top final acts in recent memory, but what it could have been almost constantly overshadows what it actually is: a movie whose main source of entertainment is not its high-concept premise or bonkers final thirty minutes, but the real-life Twitter feeds of entertainment media in mid-to-late December.
And really, is there any need to set up its plot at this point? Franco plays Dave Skylark, host of ‘Skylark Tonight,’ a fictional talk show that looks like what would happen if Larry King were allowed to host Entertainment Tonight. His Executive Producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen) lands them an interview with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who it turns out is a big fan of the show, along with The Big Bang Theory. Lizzy Caplan shows up as a strict CIA agent, there’s a whole training sequence about secretly assassinating Kim with a ricin strip that comes off like first time screenwriter and long time television writer Dan Sterling has binged Breaking Bad one too many times, and it all ends with a cute puppy and explosions.
Rogen plays the straight man to Franco’s wild card (he ditches a CIA-issued mission bag for a flamboyant Gucci piece, calling the former a “Douche-bag”), and Rogen easily steals the show. While Franco gets some of the best and most memorable lines, “He’s motherfucking peanut butter and jealous,” he’s far too unrealistically zany to stick as a character. His off-the-wall facial expressions and manic nature are more caricature than anything else, which could have worked if he was riffing off of a real-world news figure, but otherwise he just comes off as annoying.
He gets an interesting subplot dealing with Kim’s more emotionally fragile side, but his ignorance concerning the real nature of what’s going on (Kim is ‘honeydicking’ him, distracting Franco with shiny things and women to appear likeable) is such an obvious foreshadowing to an inevitable fight between he and Rogen that it diffuses any comedy or dramatic tension from every scene.
Rogen, on the other hand, is far more believably vexed by their predicament. He easily anchors the movie with his trademark schlubbishness and dead-pan reactions to Franco’s camera mugging. Even when the movie shirks all sense of reality for a highly entertaining final stretch, Rogen’s constant exasperation at his situation (particularly a brawl in a control room) is not only the movie at it’s comedic zenith, but its creative.
That’s it, really. The Interview, for all its hype and fuss, is at the end of the day just another average Seth Rogen comedy. It does not match the comedic heights that a movie like Neighbors captured earlier this year, and its social commentary is not even up to snuff against something like This is the End‘s biblical apocalypse. Both movies that prove this team can make something of worth, in spite of each respective film’s shortcomings.
Like both of those movies, its main problem lies in its meandering nature, but there’s also something charmingly kitchen-sink about it as well. It goes from an opening joke about Eminem’s sexuality to a surprisingly effective running gag concerning a particular Katy Perry song that pays off in a gloriously unexpected way. As it could be said to be sporadically funny, the same thing could be said for its cleverness.
Unfortunately, it’s also a movie that comes with a few week’s worth of real-world dramatic baggage, and in that sense The Interview will be less remembered for its occasionally clever send-up of international politics and American media, but for its own place in it.