Editor's Note: Sony has officially canceled the theatrical release of The Interview following terrorist threats against theaters and the announcement that several major theater chains had opted not to exhibit the film. The following review was written before Sony pulled The Interview– and stands as a reminder that world-shaking art is not necessarily great art.
The big selling point of Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen's The Interview is a jaw-dropper: When the producer and the star of a sensationalistic talk show — played, respectively, by Rogen and James Franco — get a chance to interview wackbird North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the CIA butts in and persuades them to assassinate him.
Building a comedy around the planned murder of a real-life geopolitical figure is a pretty wild idea, and apparently, the real-life Kim — he of the cereal-bowl pompadour and Spanky McFarland jawline — thought so too. In June, after seeing a trailer for the film, North Korean officials called the movie an "act of war" and held the Obama administration responsible for it, threatening a "decisive and merciless countermeasure" if the film were released. In late November, Sony Pictures became the victim of a major computer hack, carried out by a group identifying itself as Guardians of Peace. The North Korean government has denied responsibility, but "Guardians of Peace"? If that doesn't sound like the handiwork of a scary, nuke-happy comic-book regime, I don't know what does.
With so much drama riding on its mere existence, The Interview deserves the poetic justice of actually being great. But the more desperately a comedy tries to be outrageous, the less likely it is to be outrageous — or even just funny. And that's the fate that befalls The Interview, which offers a few moments of casual brilliance — like the opening sequence, in which a radiant North Korean schoolgirl sings a cheerful anthem about her desire for Americans to drown in their own blood — but otherwise trips itself up in the threads of its contrived absurdity.
Rogen plays Aaron Rapaport, a wannabe serious journalist who has somehow gotten stuck at the helm of a bottom-feeding talk show hosted by Franco's cheesy-sleazy Dave Skylark: Dave prides himself on his big, flashy interviews (one big coup involves Eminem's announcing, on-air, that he's gay) and his even flashier wardrobe (his mash-ups of bold-colored paisleys and stripes look like an explosion at an Etro sample sale). When he learns that Kim Jong-un is a big fan of his, Dave pushes for an exclusive interview, ignoring the fact that everyone else, including Aaron, knows this is the lousiest of ideas. When Kim agrees, Dave and Aaron make the trek to the Supreme Leader's remote, tiger-strewn Playboy Mansion–esque compound, but not before comely Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) supplies them with a fast-acting poison that can be conveniently administered, James Bond–style, via handshake.
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Everything goes awry, of course. Most notably, Dave finds himself totally bowled over by Kim — played, with winsome deviousness, by Randall Park — who dazzles his guest with a ride in a vintage Soviet tank, plies him with babes and booze, and confesses his secret love for the music of Katy Perry. Dave thinks Kim is a great guy; Aaron knows his colleague is being snowed, though he's not above being snookered himself, particularly by Kim's right-hand lady Sook (Diana Bang), who ably fulfills the movie's woman-in-uniform fantasy quota.
Some of the jokes in The Interview work, but the movie — which was written by Dan Sterling, from a story by Sterling, Rogen, and Goldberg — never hits the right rhythm. It's too lax and loose one minute and wound too tight the next. A few scenes come close to the kind of raucous madness the material needs: When Kim and Dave go out for a joyride in that tank, they blow stuff up with jubilant aplomb. But isn't it time to stop using Katy Perry as the go-to symbol of guys' weakness for girly pop and thus their great "un-manly" sensitivity? And when it comes to East-meets-West comedy, five or more "Me so solly"–type language gags is pushing it.
Of the two stars, Rogen is the easiest to stomach: With his Hanna-Barbera features, mobile and expressive, he doesn't have to work hard to be likable. If only Franco, a gifted if overexposed actor, would tone down the mugging. When Dave tries to persuade Aaron that American TV audiences have an insatiable appetite for junk ("That's what the public wants! Give us the shit, mangia, mangia!"), he mimes excessive face-stuffing, but it's his gestures that are much too much. He grins widely and often, as if he harbors no doubt that he's the most charming and amusing creature on the planet.
When The Interview takes a dark turn, neither Rogen nor Franco proves adept enough to steer around the story's sharp curve. The movie feels pinched and mean-spirited, even for one designed to skewer a powerful and dangerous lunatic. The real Kim Jong Un, with his aura of chubby humorlessness and his penchant for waving nuclear threats around like licorice whips, is so over the top that he's almost impossible to parody. Maybe that's why Rogen and Goldberg can't pull it off. The Interview will go down in history for all the wrong reasons, stirring up an awful lot of trouble for very little payoff.