Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Interview / *1/2 (2014)

What is it about the pairing of James Franco and Seth Rogen that inspires such screwy exploits? Isolated, here are actors with plausible conviction in a diverse array of material, but together they bring about a level of bizarre physical abnormality, like friends in a college frat-house who get off by making everyone around them believe they have suffered brain injuries. That is perhaps less amusing than it sounds, but try telling that to either of them; their synergy and enthusiasm is so beyond persistent that it’s almost infectious, even when it is directed towards trivial fluff or disposable internet shtick (case in point: the endless supply of YouTube videos they have put together over the past year). They are definitive occupants of that dreaded “bromance” moniker, but it’s impossible to dislike the good-natured purity of their shared antics, and there are moments when we smirk at their mutual audacity for whatever obstacles they are up against. It’s just a shame that their robust friendship has to play out in the frames of very bad comedies.

Someone ought to have suggested that to them early on when a dubious idea like “The Interview” came to their attention. This is the epitome of unpleasant movies, a shallow and pathetic cartoon about thoroughly unlikable people in thoroughly unrealistic professions who stumble into the chance of a lifetime and respond to it by, well, doing and saying thoroughly implausible things that would make the heroes of “Dumb and Dumber” look on with unamused scowls.  That might have amusing in some regards if the film knew what it took to create a genuine laugh, but like an amateur with a shotgun it fires everything it can at the screen without ever hitting a target. Considering the almost visceral nature of its two leads to do everything short of cutting an arm off in order to spike audience amusement, that reality comes off as surprising; what’s even more disheartening is how they managed to keep a straight face while playing elaborated cretin versions of themselves on screen without any sense of remorse. Gene Siskel once suggested that the best test you can give a film is by asking one pointed question: is a movie more interesting than watching a documentary of the same actors having lunch? Something tells me he’d withdraw the contemplation at the mere thought of watching two characters like this get anywhere near food, much less a camera.

I’ll elaborate. Franco and Rogan play buddies who put on a popular celebrity gossip show called “Skylark Tonight,” a frivolous endeavor that in the early scenes is shown as a glaring contrast to the more serious journalism of other nightly news programs; while all of them are discussing Kim Jong-Un’s new power grab as a result of acquiring nuclear weapons, television personality David Skylark (the Franco character) is conducting interviews with entertainment moguls and getting them to confess deep dark secrets, sometimes purely on accident (a scene featuring Eminem is particularly noteworthy). Off camera, Dave and his producer/buddy Aaron (Seth Rogen) engage in all the typical mid-life male indulgences – drinking, sniffing cocaine, having sex with random people, bragging about it during hangovers, etc. – and their routines are intercut with geeky acknowledgments (“It’s like ‘Lord of the Rings’: you are Samwise to my Frodo!”). How either got to be the lucrative proprietors of any kind of news show in this kind of competitive climate is just one of the many glaring logic lapses that “The Interview” lobs at us, but I digress.

A dissonance in their behaviors comes to the forefront of the story arc. David thrives at the sensationalism of his job because it reflects his own off-the-wall personality; Aaron (the Rogen character), who is behind the scenes, silently wishes for something more reputable. By happenstance they discover, quite surprisingly, that the notorious North Korean leader Kim Jung-Un watches their show religiously, setting the stage for them to pursue an interview with the feared dictator as competing news organizations watch on with fear and resentment (no wonder: if I were part of a more reputable establishment, I too would be scratching my forehead at the idea of a disposable news gossip show landing a sit-down with the most feared man in the world, too). Why does the dictator want to go through with the interview, though? To improve his image, I guess, in a political landscape that sees him as a ruthless totalitarian. The problem in that logic, even by the most cleverly guised satires (of which this is not), is that it’s totally unbelievable that a dictator this infamous would bother acknowledging the need for better public relations. But again, I digress.

Their ability to schedule said interview does not go unnoticed by legal authorities, either. Soon after the booking – which will take Dave and Aaron to North Korea to set up shop in Kim Jung-Un’s own house, no less – an agent from the CIA named Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) comes knocking at their door. Her proposition: if both of them could assist in an assassination of Kim Jung-Un during the course of their stay, it could cripple the foundation of the dictatorship and undermine the most feared national enemy of the United States. The setup briefings in which the plan is discussed are almost painful to sit through; while Lacey details the specifics and is forced to counter generally stupid questions, she and David engage in an endless argument where he insists on the benefit of murdering the Korean leader in a grand flash of military weapons (even though that would clearly be a tactical error for anyone hoping to survive the outcome), and Lacey attempts to explain how critical it is for the job to be carried out so that no one in the public sphere knows of their involvement afterwards (which is promptly ignored during momentary fantasies of him writing a tell-all). The eventual plot would have Jong-Un exposed to a poisonous serum resting in the palm of David’s hand when they went to shake towards the close of their televised interview, but of course he even gets that wrong during early dry runs.

None of this is funny. No, not even by the standards of James Franco, whose own brand of comedy already defies description; this is all showy nonsense meant to create some kind of rise in the audience in order to force their eyes into a widened state of shock. Some people confuse that with comedy, and maybe we are simply in the era where the difference is muddled, I dunno. The problem in it all is that Franco’s character simply does not know how to shut up long enough for us to absorb the material, and Rogen’s character wobbles through one scene after another with nervous tension, as if waiting for the moment when a bomb under a chair is going to go off. Serving as co-director with Evan Goldberg, he ought to have sensed that the only bomb about to explode was the one someone buried in this failure of a screenplay; nearly every moment in which a joke is tossed at the camera – and there is a lot of those, trust me – is a complete misfire. That ranges not just from sight gags and crude punchlines, but also to seemingly ordinary dialogue exchanges that are simply a case of trying too hard (my personal favorite: Kim Jong-Un brags about a gift his grandfather “received from Stalin,” and David insists that in America, “they pronounce it Stallone!”).

Idiot comedies can be fun if the movie knows it is dealing with morons. Sometimes it is possible to suspend notions of plausibility if a film is enthusiastic enough about its ideas to warrant the optimism. I subscribe to the notion that such possibilities are the rule, not the exception. But what did anyone involved in “The Interview” find funny or interesting about this idea? My guess is that someone close to Franco and Rogen simply showed them a rough outline of the story and let it all evolve from there (you can practically hear the logic uttered in the story conference: “why bother expanding the paper-thin details? These two guys can carry it all with their chemistry!”). And as it is the nature of them both to do as much as possible for a laugh much like Jackie Chan does anything to garner a moment of excitement, they fill the screen with all the kinds of shouting matches, embarrassing interactions and physical absurdity that we suspect is the foundation of their very off-screen rapport. It’s almost enchanting in how they give it their all, even when they are missing every significant beat along the way. That’s dedication for you. The bright side is that if a catastrophe like this movie doesn’t kill their friendship, then surely nothing will.

Special Note: “The Interview” is now available On-Demand amidst protests against Sony pulling the film from theatrical release, fearing retaliation from the Korean government for an unflattering portrayal of Kim Jung-Un. All things considered, the Korean dictator gets off easy; the movie’s portrayal of American’s limited intelligence is surely the film’s most unflattering quality.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Action/Comedy (US); 2014; Rated R for pervasive language, crude and sexual humor, nudity, some drug use and bloody violence; Running Time: 112 Minutes

James Franco: Dave Skylark
Seth Rogen: Aaron Rapaport
Lizzy Caplan: Agent Lacey
Randall Park: President Kim
Diana Bang: Sook

Produced by
James Franco, Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter, Alex McAtee, Seth Rogen, Ariel Shaffir, Dan Sterling, Ben Waisbren, James Weaver and Shawn WilliamsonDirected by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen; Written by Dan Sterling

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