Mentioning Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg‘s The Interview in the same sentence as Orson Welles‘ Citizen Kane or Francis Ford Coppola‘s The Godfather is something most would consider blasphemous, much as making a film about assassinating a sitting world leader is something most would consider offensive. But if you’re going to review a movie as controversial as The Interview, which stars Rogen and James Franco as entertainment news journalists co-opted by the CIA to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, you’re bound to spill some literary blood by writing something controversial yourself — until, like the very film you’re writing about, your audience realizes what you’ve written isn’t nearly as shocking as the hype led them to believe.
I’ve written stories about The Interview ever since news broke last week that five U.S. theater chains had chosen not to screen the film after Sony allowed them to opt out of their exhibition agreement. If you’ve followed along at all, you know this prompted Sony to scrap the film’s December 25 release altogether, only to pull an eleventh hour about-face and release the movie on-demand on Christmas Eve and in select independent and arthouse theaters on Christmas Day. It seemed every day and sometimes every hour brought a new update, to the point I was adding new information to an article just before posting it and then editing the same article within minutes of clicking “Submit.”
So at this point, as weird as it sounds to combine these films in a single sentence, reviewing The Interview feels akin to writing a lengthy in-depth essay on Citizen Kane or The Godfather: the assassination buddy-comedy has become a legend unto itself with all the attention it has received. As a critic, it’s sometimes difficult to know where exactly to enter the conversation and what exactly you can bring to the table that hasn’t already been said, but I’m going to give it an honest effort, and I’ll just start by laying my opinion out on the table: The Interview is a pretty solid comedy, and at the end of the day it works largely because of its writer-director-star.
The Interview is a Seth Rogen comedy through and through, and like the rest of his movies I don’t think Rogen ever intended The Interview to generate so much attention. But in watching the movie from the convenience of my parents’ couch, my stomach full on roasted turkey and ham, mashed and sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, a chewy fudge brownie, and a glass of Malbec — I hiked it all off this morning, don’t worry — I realized something: The Interview is pretty good, sometimes surprisingly so. Removed from all the chatter, distanced any expectations created online in the past week, and remembering this was a movie whose time in the cultural spotlight shouldn’t have begun before December 25 or lasted after December 28, I really enjoyed it.
The film is silly and stupid and loud — see the first clause in the paragraph above about it being a Seth Rogen comedy — but it is also quite clever and at times very funny, providing the type of hearty belly laughs I haven’t experienced since Neighbors, which ironically also starred, you guessed it, Seth Rogen. His schtick can grow tiresome and wear itself thin, but he comes off as lovable here in a way I wasn’t quite expecting. He is the straight man to Franco’s wise guy, and the two work very well together here.
Rogen plays Aaron Rapoport, the producer of “Skylark Tonight”, an entertainment talk show hosted by Aaron’s best friend Dave Skylark (Franco). The film centers on Aaron and Dave as they travel to North Korea to interview Kim Jong-un, the country’s supreme leader, played to perfection by Randall Park and whom the pair learn is a big fan of their show. But the duo’s plans are quickly co-opted by the CIA, and their new mission, led by Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan), entails using their interview opportunity to instead assassinate Kim Jong-un and bring his regime to its knees.
It all sounds pretty serious, but it isn’t. It has satirical elements, but The Interview is very much in the vein of This is the End, meaning it is a vulgar buddy comedy, and though it sometimes misses the mark it should have more than enough laughs to keep you entertained, especially in the first hour before the assassination plot begins to unfold. The film gets a little messy from that point on, but never really slows down, not even when it takes the opportunity to dive into global politics, an area about which I try my best to stay up-to-date yet find myself woefully behind. It is clear we’ve got plenty of issues to sort out in our world, and it is just as clear to me America is part of the problem.
Seth Rogen, somewhat surprisingly given the nature of his work, understands this, so while there is certainly some pro-American sentiment to be found within The Interview, it isn’t nearly as “rah-rah, America is the best!” as it could have been or as I was expecting it to be. Rogen and Goldberg point the finger at Kim Jong-un and his regime, but they also take the opportunity to point right back at their American audience: Franco plays the “dumb American” who doesn’t understand the difference between various Asian ethnicities, and while that is played up for laughs — he closes a speech to the North Koreans who welcome him with the Japanese “konnichi wa” — it is also used to show how we aren’t as sensitive to or as knowledgable of other cultures as we ought to be.
The film opens with a scene I found sincerely hilarious: a North Korean child is singing what seems at first a beautiful native song about her country and its leader, but beneath her the subtitled lyrics quickly turn from pro-Korea to anti-America, citing her country’s one wish above all is “for the United States to explode in a ball of fiery hell” because Americans are “arrogant and fat! They are stupid and they’re evil.” “Die America, die! Oh please won’t you die? It would fill my tiny little heart with joy!” she proclaims, and while I can’t say whether the filmmakers’ intentions were simply to make the audience laugh or to conjure up anti-Korea sentiment, I found myself laughing my ass off at the juxtaposition of such a beautiful-sounding song with such scornful lyrics.
This is surprisingly astute filmmaking on behalf of Rogen and Goldberg, but given the films of theirs I’ve enjoyed, maybe I should stop being surprised when they turn out a screenplay that winds up being a good movie. Superbad is one of my favorite comedies, and This is the End had one of the best scenes in any film last year. Much like that film, The Interview features a hilarious cameo of a person we think we know exposed as someone we never would have expected him to be. Coming off the scene mentioned above, it makes for a fantastic one-two punch and sets the stage for what is to come in the rest of the film. Yes, there are the usual montages of booze and drugs and boobs, but the film comes together really well, and while it is sometimes messy and always ludicrous it is never less than entertaining.
People — and by people, I mean everyone from critics, news journalists, and casual moviegoers alike — have talked about how ballsy a movie The Interview is, how important it has become in our cultural landscape, and maybe those are valid points but I’m not going to go there. The basic plot of the film is what makes it so controversial, but once you’ve actually seen the movie, its controversial nature largely fades away. For as much conversation and debate the film has generated, its premise is really only a vehicle to explore the usual Seth Rogen topics of comedy: bromance, weed, booze, sex, farts. If you like it, you like it, if you don’t, you don’t. This isn’t Rogen doing Charlie Chaplin‘s The Great Dictator, this is Rogen doing a slightly refined version of his previous work, and for that I salute him.