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A Review of "The Interview" (2014)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

For a movie with as much buzz around it as this, The Interview doesn't really leave me with a lot to say about the film itself.  The producers are fortunate that there was any kind of controversy to keep it in the limelight.  That said, it's okay.  Some jokes hit, many miss.  It's neither all bad nor all good. The real story, unfortunately, is in the world around it - and that's depressing for unexpected reasons.

My Rating: 3 / 5

The Bit Where I Summarize the Plot

I don't really have to do this, do I?  I can't think of another movie in the last decade that made as many headlines as The Interview.  Surely you all know the plot by now, right?

James Franco and Seth Rogen play a couple of putzes who score an interview with Kim Jong-un (Randall Park), and are tasked by a CIA operative (Lizzy Caplan) to assassinate him.  Along the way, they meet a North Korean PR specialist (Diana Bang) who may or may not be sympathetic to their cause.  Wacky antics ensue.

The Part Where I Complain

Let's open my complaints with my usual backhanded praise.  I really, really want to stress that I don't think this is a bad movie.  It's as middle-of-the-road as you can get.  There were some genuinely amusing parts and I think long-time fans of Rogen or Franco will probably find a lot to enjoy.

I also thought that Diana Bang was incredibly funny.  She's been working for awhile, per her IMDB page, but this is the first performance of hers I've seen.  I hope to see more in the future - she's really a great talent and she made some of the movie's lesser material work through sheer charisma.

Lizzy Caplan also does great work, but unfortunately she's completely wasted in what might as well not even be a role in the film.  Her character just doesn't really do anything other than stand on the sidelines and occasionally frown at the camera.  It's a testament to her talent that she came off as well as she did.

Honestly, Rogen and Franco might have been the worst parts of the movie.  They're fine actors and usually they're very funny, but The Interview seems so self-assured that everything that comes out of their mouths is pure gold that it refuses to shut them up.  And that's where the problem lies most of the jokes suffer from an SNL-level case of padding and repetition.

Consider the scene where Rogen receives an emergency package from the CIA in the form of a phallic capsule and needs to hide it quickly.  The (obvious) joke is that he should hide it in his ass.  This is not inherently funny, but Rogen sells it nicely.  And there's a pretty good punchline when the movie cuts back to the CIA headquarters, and Caplan asks one of her colleagues, "What do you think?" The guy shrugs, then deadpans, "I think he should shove it up his ass."  This could have been pretty funny if they kept it breezy and quick.

But instead, there's a good thirty seconds of back and forth between Rogen and Franco, screaming to each other about how much it will suck to put this capsule in his ass.  Did you hear about the ass-shoving?  Are you aware that there is a thing that might go into Rogen's ass, and he's not comfortable with it?  Rogen would very much like to not put this in his ass.  Didja get it?

Or maybe look at the repeated callback to the song "Firework."  This is one of those pop culture references that's only funny for like three weeks, yet people always seem to find clever for reasons I cannot grasp.  (I won't pretend I haven't tried to do the same from time to time, but the older I get, the more I realize there's no value here.)  The gag is just that Kim Jong-un likes the song, but he's ashamed to admit it.  Cue half a dozen performances of "Firework," either through the characters' mouths or through non-diegetic soundtrack.

In this case, the repetition is actually made worse by the fact that the real joke here is in Kim's shame, not the song itself.  If you really wanted to milk this, you'd keep exaggerating the different ways that Kim tries to either pretend he doesn't like the song or that he can't hear it.  But instead, they simply use the song itself as a punchline, and it just doesn't work.  It's not only not funny - it's repeatedly not funny.

But all of that is just nitpicking.  If I really wanted to be a prick, I could take any comedy and try to dissect why any number of the gags might not have worked for one or more people.

The real problem I have is that it's simply not good satire.  If the movie was about a less thought-provoking topic, I wouldn't mind so much, but the simple fact is that we've collectively lowered the bar for quality satire so far that nobody even tries anymore, and movies like this are doing nothing to help.  I wouldn't go so far as to say that satire is dead in this country, but it's definitely in the ICU.

It's perhaps the singular most important subgenre of humor, renown for subtle wit and incisive observations.  Satire is comedy with purpose.  It reshapes the way people think and talk about issues.  It can change minds and it can even change how people perceive the truth.  It's a powerful tool that needs to be wielded with grace, intelligence, and some semblance of maturity.

Unfortunately, two of the most popular and beloved shows on TV, South Park and Family Guy, have done their damnedest to ruin social and political comedy. Whereas you once had to have a point or actually make a joke to take somebody down a peg, now it's okay to just effect a shitty imitation of their voice and go, "I'm really stupid! I'm so stupid! Nyah nyah nyah!"

But that's not real satire.  You're not actually taking down anybody's beliefs or concepts or politics or ideas.  You're just ignoring them for the sake of childish mockery, and you're telling everybody else that it's okay if they ignore the issues for the sake of childish mockery, too.

Kim Jong-un is a ripe target for satire, but the reason isn't because he's a spoiled doof.  It's because he's a merciless dictator.  Target the ridiculousness of his power and station, and you might be halfway toward making a point.  But The Interview seems to be afraid to make a point.  Anytime it starts to seem like it has a thought, it cuts away to a boner gag and sighs with relief.  "That was close, guys!  We almost had some social commentary here!"

(But, to be fair, they didn't drop the ball as bad as Parker and Stone did.  Guys, let's be honest.  Team America was a shitty movie.  You can like it if you want, but it was stupid and incredibly fucking lazy.  It's one of the most intellectually bankrupt commentaries on politics that has been put out into the public in the last ten years, right up there with Jenny McCarthy's campaign against childhood wellness.  The fact that we hold it up with any regard at all is shameful.)

I would try to make more of a joke about this, but it just makes me cynical and depressed.  Speaking of cynicism....

The Part Where I Project Way Too Much Significance and Unfairly Hold the Movie to an Artificially High Standard

The rest of this review might get a little rambly, so bear with me.

I remember that when I first heard about this movie in early or mid-2014, I was pretty psyched.  I thought the premise sounded funny and I figured that, worst-case scenario, we'd get a passable buddy comedy out of it.  (I wasn't wrong.)  Later, when I heard about all the buzz and controversy surrounding the Sony hacking and the threats against theaters who would show the movie, my interest was even more piqued.

And then I heard some of the early reviews coming in and my skeptical brow raised.  But I tried not to let it get in the way of the excitement about witnessing an Event Movie.

Then the movie was banned - remember that?  Remember all four weeks ago when that was a thing?  And I was so eager to see it because it felt like not only an Event Movie, but an Important Movie, too.  Suddenly, this movie escalated from being "possibly a mildly funny movie" to "one of the defining moments of a generation."  Would we ever see it?  Would violence erupt?

Then it was unceremoniously dumped onto Netflix.  All that build-up, all that drama, all the bitching and moaning about freedom and censorship, and it was just like, "Oh, hey, guys.  Here's a thing.  You wanna watch?"

I feel like that empty fart of a conclusion is kind of like a metaphor for political movements as a whole in this country nowadays.

When I was a kid, I remember hearing stories about the civil rights marches of the 1950s and the anti-establishment sentiment in the 1960s and the anti-war protests of the early 1970s.  I admired that.  I was filled with this sense of achievement and purpose when I thought about rebellion - there was this idea that each generation is supposed to rail against its predecessor to keep the flame of youth alive.  That somehow, that burning righteousness was integral to keeping society moving forward, to keeping political discourse dynamic.

But I never found communal motivation for much when I was growing up.  That's not to say that there haven't been any causes in my lifetime.  There's been plenty: gay marriage, socialized healthcare, US surveillance of its citizens, the complete annihilation of privacy and due process over the last fifteen years, and many more.

It's just that now that I'm older, I realize that the idea of fighting for a cause is typically more appealing to people than actually fighting.  So people don't write letters or vote or try to make rational arguments.  They just want the feeling of outrage.  They'll bitch and moan, and then after a long build-up toward what seems like it might be some momentous occasion... the issue just disappears.

We're so lazy that our latest cause - the censorship of The Interview - was deemed to be resolvable simply by watching the movie on Netflix.  That was our grand solution, guys,  No need to confront the threat of violence, no need to rethink our hysterical reactions to rumors of terrorism, no need to address the hypocrisies inherent in decrying Kim Jong-un's terrible behavior while ignoring comparable atrocities elsewhere in the world and at home.  No, just watch The Interview and you're proving a point.  Somehow.

In fact, you actually get a badge of honor. By watching this okay-but-not-terrific movie, you have proved to be a Real Human Being and a True American Hero.  Just make sure you get really indignant and turn to whoever's in the room with you and scream, "They can't silence us!" before you press Play.

BTW.  North Korea still exists, y'all.

If I was a more intelligent man, I might be able to tie all of this together somehow.  Maybe the lack of good satire in our country is just another side effect of a greater issue.  Maybe it's that we want everything to be so easy and accessible that we find tough decisions to be unmarketable, and that's why there's no good satire nor very many good movements.  We are so sold on an easy life that we accept laziness as long as it's palatable and cheap.

Or maybe I'm just being a grump this week.  I don't know.  Gay marriage is making decent headway, so at least that's something.

Anyway, The Interview.  'sokay.