I’ve already written about the pre-release furore over “The Interview”, which you can read here if you’d like. It was a fascinating moment, and genuinely serious political things were happening as a result of a fairly lightweight comedy; after getting perhaps the greatest pre-release publicity any film has ever received, it was eventually released both online and in selected independent cinemas (my friend Scott even got his photo on his local news after attending a showing).
James Franco is Dave Skylark, a “tabloid” TV news show host, and Seth Rogen is Aaron Rapaport, his producer. In between Eminem “shockingly” revealing himself as gay and an endless stream of puff pieces, they have a bit of a revelation and want to do some meatier news, so when Dave finds out that Kim Jong Un is a huge fan of their show, it starts a chain of events that eventually has them flying over to North Korea to do an interview with the world’s most reclusive leader. The CIA, as represented by Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan), see a huge opportunity and want the two of them to assassinate Un with slow-release ricin.
The thing that most surprised me about this movie is how funny it is. I’m not really the world’s biggest fan of Rogen – I thought “Pineapple Express” was lazy and unfunny, really didn’t like “The Green Hornet” , and didn’t care for “Superbad” or “The Watch” (he wrote them). “This Is The End” was an improvement, even if it could have been a bit funnier…I think this is probably his best film, which given the subject matter is a surprise to me.
Honestly, it’s nice to see a film which is in unapologetic bad taste. “The Producers”, “Man Bites Dog”, “Four Lions”, “Postal”, “Used Cars”…among others, these are films that are unafraid to go to dark places for their humour and occasionally go over the top. A film about an idiot TV presenter and his ever-so-slightly pretentious producer being tasked with killing Kim Jong Un is certainly not the average comedy plot, and they go for it. Because Franco doesn’t like the special assassination bag he was supplied with by the CIA, he transfers the strip of ricin to a pack of gum, and as they’re being searched on their way into the Presidential compound…well, I’m sure you can figure out what’s going to happen. The two of them are honeytrapped by everyone around them, on both sides, and unlike the average thriller character they are aware of all this stuff and constantly comment on it. James Franco plays a loveable idiot as well as anyone, even if I’m not entirely sure Rogen really acts any more, just plays himself in a new job.
It’s not all fun, games, and grossout humour though. Showing Un as a lover of Western culture is about as obvious a joke as you could get; and Lizzy Caplan’s CIA agent gets to do almost literally nothing other than show us a bit of cleavage. But the worst problem is the ease of its target, and the way it treats slightly more difficult targets.
I don’t believe in the argument that roughly goes – well, why are you attacking X when *even worse thing Y* exists in the world? Because terrible regimes are in charge of lots of other countries, it doesn’t let North Korea off the hook. But the little segment in China, when Aaron goes to meet the North Korean representatives, gives the lie to that. China is shown to be a wonderful, friendly place where strangers share their food and drink, where everything is lovely; of course, it’s one of the worst human rights abusers in the world, where democracy doesn’t exist and people who work in mobile phone factories are committing suicide regularly due to the appalling conditions of near-slavery they live in. The primary difference between the two countries that Sony, the producers of “The Interview”, cared about? That they can make lots of money from Chinese cinemagoers. Seriously, there are no mainstream films that criticise China any more.
If you’re living in the Middle East and know someone who died thanks to a drone strike, or you’ve spent any time in Cuba, or have lived in any of the countries whose legal rulers were deposed thanks to CIA agents in the past, then your view of the happy friendly USA will probably be fairly similar to how this movie views North Korea – with the difference being, the USA is a threat to every country in the world, and North Korea isn’t really a threat to anyone. But, the film is smart enough to realise this, and very quietly slips in a few Occupy-approved things, like how they have lots and lots of nukes but don’t want anyone else to have them, and have a higher prison population per capita than North Korea does. But this is small comfort and doesn’t let the film off the hook.
As much as they want him to be, Kim Jong Un just isn’t Hitler, and whenever the film’s not trying to be funny, it suffers from a very poor understanding of how the world works. Although in a weird way, it might have a positive outcome, as it’s perhaps going to be the end of North Korea being seen as the movie world’s whipping boy (like, most famously, “Red Dawn”, where the Chinese invasion force was digitally altered to be North Korean after filming had ended). If only the two incredibly wealthy, privileged actors had stuck to making fun of a fictitious country! I also wonder just how loud the pro-freedom of speech brigade would be shouting if the tables were turned – could you imagine a knockabout mainstream comedy from the Middle East about a couple of TV show hosts tasked with doing a special from the USA, and assassinating the President?
Lastly, it’s really funny, Franco is an amazingly gifted actor, and it’s definitely worth watching – you don’t have to agree with the politics of all your art, I suppose.
Rating: thumbs up