When James Franco’s appropriately named Dave Skylark, the host of a popular celebrity gossip show called Skylark Tonight, rather quickly agrees to assassinate Supreme Leader Kim Jung-un (Randall Park) in Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s The Interview, his intentions aren’t political. He’s the victim of a “honeypot” scam engineered by a C.I.A. agent (Lizzy Caplan) who wears a low-cut top and sports sexy-teacher glasses to rope in the dimwit, a maneuver Skylark’s best friend and producer, Aaron (Rogen), sees right through. Unlike his character, however, Rogen, along with Goldberg and screenwriter Dan Sterling, displays a lack of clarity in their aspirations and pretensions with this film, a comedy that never quite reconciles its comedic absurdity with its initially provocative scenario.
This isn’t to say that the film, which chronicles Aaron and Skylark’s mission to Pyongyang to meet, interview, and kill the leader, isn’t funny; Skylark’s desperately flashy wardrobe alone would rebuke that claim. There’s some inspired physical gags involving the small poison-laced strip meant to send the Supreme Leader into the big unicorn lair in the sky; at one point, Rogen hilariously maneuvers killing a sexual partner with half of the strip exposed on his hand. The oft-fruitless round robin of celebrity cameos that accompanies nearly every movie involving Rogen is mercifully streamlined, essentially down to only Rob Lowe and Eminem, who both appear as guests on Skylark Tonight early in the film. Lowe reveals to Skylark that he’s bald, while Eminem matter-of-factly comes out of the closet, and the rapper’s prolonged sequence speaks directly to the tinny edginess that runs throughout Rogen and Goldberg’s directorial follow-up to This Is the End.
The film itself ends up being more about toying with concepts of journalistic authenticity and duty than North Korea and Kim, as Eminem’s sequence focuses on how over-excited Skylark reacts to the artist’s nonchalant admission. At another point, a 60 Minutes producer (Anders Holm) drunkenly stokes Aaron’s insecurity about his show’s shallowness, as the producer yearns to be a legitimate newsman. There are plenty of references in The Interview to Kim’s real-life, er, let’s call them eccentricities and crimes against humanity, but there’s absolutely no anger to the film’s already middling satirical jabs. The filmmakers also embrace a wonky sort of sentimentalism and moralism in the personage of Sook (Diana Bang), one of Kim’s most trusted and altruistic minions who falls for Aaron. The unthinking suggestion the film makes by the end, as Sook looks to take office from Kim, is that whoever succeeds the Supreme Leader has to be better, a hugely spurious notion that the film milks for relevancy.
These choices in mood and character beg the question: Why involve Kim and North Korea in this at all? In Larry Charles’s superior The Dictator, the filmmakers smartly made Sacha Baron Cohen’s titular ultra-fascist into a fictional amalgamation of recent, real-life tyrants, a storytelling tactic that allowed them to avoid addressing those leaders’ very real crimes with very real body counts from the outset. The Interview is less concerned with such matters, and quickly settles into a cutesy tone, despite the appearance of more than a few bitten-off fingers, while using Skylark’s unexpected friendship with Kim as a soft metaphor for the power of wealth and self-victimization to veil mass-scale manipulators. When Skylark arrives at the leader’s compound, he’s plied with drinks, women, drugs, and games, but Skylark bonds with Kim primarily over the dictator’s stresses over his father’s expectations, which is why he listens to Katy Perry’s “Firework” in private.
There’s a faint sense that Rogen and Goldberg see Kim’s exploitations as a grand-scale variation on Skylark’s preference for gossip and sob stories over serious journalism. The Franco character’s final coup is in exposing Kim’s vulnerable side, which the leader saves for his closest staff members and confidants. During the titular sequence, Kim lets the beast out for a moment when he suggests that America is no better than North Korea in certain respects, a sharp point which the film inevitably discards, along with anything else that might insinuate that Rogen and Goldberg are interested in anything other than cock-centered humor. (Not for nothing is the film’s most memorable joke the creation of the term “honeydick.”) That’s not a knock against this brand of comedy, which certainly has its place, but rather against films like The Interview that use major global issues to cheaply dress up what is two hours of hit-and-miss erection jokes. For all the hoopla that’s been made over the Sony hack and Kim’s demands that the film be pulled from release, The Interview is all talk, a sheep in wolf’s clothing, which makes its frivolous politics all the more odious.