* * 1/2
Dir. Evan Goldberg, 2014
This weekend The Interview was released on Netflix (a quick poll of my intro to film class found that 1/3 of them also watched it this weekend). For all of the talk and real world implications, I knew that I had to see the movie, but went into it with extremely low expectations, as well as suffering from a head cold and on cold meds, and for this kind of film that information may be relevant, after reading mostly (deeply) negative reviews of the film; perhaps on low expectations and under the influence of drugs was the way this movie was meant to be viewed. Or perhaps people are asking far too much of it. But I actually kind of liked it. As problematic as it is, and as badly as some of the aspects of the movie misfire, there are moments where it works. Rogen and co.’s humor has a love it or hate it quality to it, and while this wasn’t as funny as their pervious works, it still met the one major expectation of comedy: it did make me laugh.
Don’t expect insightful or even well thought out satire. This is a Rogen/Franco stoner bromance movie. The dynamic, as it has been in their movies, is Rogen as the straight man and Franco as the stooge. One of the initial problems here is that unlike in Pineapple Express and This is the End, where Rogen was the lead character, in this film Franco takes the center stage. The problem is that Franco’s character, a kind of one man Anchorman cast, fails as a conceptualized, consistent character. Franco’s schtick seems to highlight his laziness, and it seems that had he spent more time on developing a consistency in his character’s idiocy the film would have worked far better.
The potent aspect in the film, the one that saves it for me, is Randall Park’s performance as Kim-Jong Un. The expectation that the film suggests at first is that Kim is just an insecure, spoiled brat with an army. This plays on the popular, and probably dangerous, media conception of the dictator, at least in comedic takes on both of the Kims. Somehow, in popular culture the Kims have occupied a place as the lovably weird dictators in the world, and this has the potential of trivializing their horrendous abuses of their own people. At the same time, these popular narratives tend to exaggerate North Korea’s threat, probably playing into their own desire to remain relevant in the world’s stage (something this film may also be guilty of). But Park’s Kim uses that pop culture persona to achieve sympathy from Franco’s Dave Skylark. It turns out, in the film’s climax, that Kim is a master manipulator, not the overgrown child he, and the film, and parts of pop culture, present to us. His insecurities are real, but he told them to Skylark to manipulate Skylark’s own, similar insecurities while Kim remains mostly detached seeing them as strategic advantages. At one point, Kim tells Skylark, “you know the most powerful weapon of all is? Words.” He plays it off quite sillily, to say that he’s hurt by the rest of the world’s distrust of him, but it points to the central interest of the film. Public persona helps keep Kim in power, and against Skylark, and his own people, Kim sees words as weapons. By showing Kim as self-aware of his own persona, and his strategic deployment of it through a violent detachment, the film subverts the goofy Kim that I was afraid it was going to reinforce.
I mentioned that this isn’t a satire. I’m not sure what you’d call it, but in one respect this is an extended poop joke. However, it may be a rather significant poop joke. Famously Kim-Jong Il was said to have never defecated. Skylark seems fascinated by the possibility that Kim doesn’t either. The climax of the film, after the film refuses the American exceptionalism that I also feared it would embrace, isn’t the death of Kim (another potentially problematic gratuitous moment ) but rather what starts the revolution is an on-air shart. And this is the desire of the film and it’s hope for comedy. Not to address the human rights disaster in North Korea (and it may have been profane to address it more in a film like this). Not to make any sorts of satirical claims about power or foreign policy. Those things operate on an intellectual level, and Rogen and co. are distrustful of intellect, the danger being that intellectual thinking can become detached from baser realities. This film wants to take a powerful dictator and bring him down to Rogen and Franco’s juvenile level, taste be damned. And there’s something cathartic and elemental to comedy about that.
Had this been a more concentrated effort by the writers and actors this could have been a brilliant film. Instead it’s haphazardly assembled, and it’s in many of its diversions that the film goes to some very problematic places that I won’t go into here. The public narrative about Rogen and company is that they were naively unaware of the potential real world damage this movie could do. But the last act of the film instead suggests that they were more ambitious though perhaps didn’t quite have an end game in mind; that comedy has power to create action, and that they wanted the film to have an effect on its North Korean audience, an audience who in theory will never see the film. As of now the film works as comedic theory: can scatological renderings of powerful people diminish their ideological control over their people? Or do these somehow backfire and reinforce that power? Perhaps the only measure of the film’s success that matters is if that theory works in practice with North Koreans who are able to get their hands on smuggled copies of The Interview.