Comedy Weaponized In Riotous "The Interview"

Twenty-five minutes into “The Interview,” a female CIA agent (Lizzy Caplan) relays some well-worn myths about Kim Jong-un, the 31 year-old supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic Of Korea (North Korea). Her audience of two – dopey talk show host Dave Skylark (James Franco, “Spring Breakers”) and his producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen, “Neighbors”) – marvel at each syllable as she outlines the brutal dictator’s alleged bathroom habits, or lack thereof.

“You’re telling me my man doesn’t pee or poop?” asks Skylark, wide-eyed.

Hard-hitting satire “The Interview” is not, running the gamut from low level gross-out humor to slightly more sophisticated gross-out humor. But as the world’s first political assassination comedy, its heady balance of irreverence and absurdity feels right. A smarter, more culturally sensitive piece might have lent more to the international relations conversation or earned more thoughtful chuckles. But that film wouldn’t have proffered so many guttural laughs, nor would it have given us the most deliriously strange performance in an increasingly strange career.

Expanding on the double act established in stoner-comedy “Pineapple Express,” James Franco and Seth Rogen have finally, fully flipped the script. “The Interview” sees Rogen as the straight man to Franco’s buffoon, allowing Rogen to function more efficiently as co-director (with Evan Goldberg) without having to carry the bulk of the comedy. Meanwhile, Franco is given centerstage and he runs wild with it.

James Franco – actor, author, student, teacher, director, artist, self-made Renaissance man – has evoked his fair share of eye rolls of inferred self-importance, but he’s nothing if not sneakily self-aware. Accordingly, “The Interview” sees him as far out on a limb as ever, in a gear rarely broached by “serious” actors. His performance as Dave Skylark, scatterbrained talk show host, is absolutely bananas, the kind of madcap fool’s errand that would sink less sturdy careers. But his free-spirited screen presence gives the film the kind of anarchic momentum it requires, mirroring its totally-serious-but-not-at-all-serious bent.

Act one sees Skylark and Rapoport secure a potentially career-saving interview with Kim Jong-un. But their good fortune quickly turns into a makeshift assassination attempt spearheaded by the aforementioned CIA operative, Agent Lacey, and the movie’s back half goes willingly off the rails. Once in North Korea, our leads face down likely death in the unlikeliest of places – tigers, misplaced ricin strips, Kim’s sultry minister of propaganda (Diana Bang), and, of course, Kim Jong-un himself.

Relative newcomer Randall Park – known mostly for his commercial work – is hit and miss in his portrayal of Kim, but it’s the kind of fearless work that deserves to be rewarded with years of steady gigs. Even when the role – like the film itself – pinballs from juvenile to serious and back again, he holds his own against an increasingly excitable Franco. As an unlikely bromance blooms between the two, some moviegoers will pull away. That’s okay. By the time Franco and Rogen roll a tank across the North Korean countryside toward the picture’s inevitable climax, all becomes clear.

Screenwriter Dan Sterling and co-directors Goldberg and Rogen have managed to use bathroom humor to turn a mirror on the self-important absolutism of Kim Jong-un and his cult of personality. Can they take the joke? Apparently not. Amidst threats of violence from alleged North Korean hackers, the largest theater chains in the US have all dumped the film, leaving it with a last minute, stitched together release via independent theaters and video on demand.

Translated, the mere existence of the film is some kind of hazy moral victory, a gleeful middle finger to insecure despots everywhere – a message obviously received. There’s surprising power in its utter refusal to take Kim Jong-un and his ilk seriously. By weaponizing infantile, often bizarre humor the film has assured itself a divisive place in history, but those attuned to its comic sensibilities will be rewarded handsomely.

Between its frequently hysterical dressing down of a depraved world leader and James Franco letting loose like never before – hits, misses, and all – “The Interview” makes for an uncommonly broad comedy experience built on big chances, enough of which pay off. Recommended.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: December 25, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg
Screenwriter: Dan Sterling
Starring: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park, Diana Bang
MPAA Rating: R (for pervasive language, crude and sexual humor, nudity, some drug use and bloody violence)