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Sometimes opportunities come when you least expect it. You’re minding your own business, doin’ ya thang, when, BAM, there’s a big ol’ knock on that door to your future and in walks destiny. Or, for the fellas at the hit American TV show Skylark Tonight – a celebrity talk show famous for getting movie stars and pop singers to reveal their intimate secrets – a despotic leader of a hermit kingdom notorious for Armageddon-fused hyperbole waged at the savage dogs of democracy. Mostly, America. It’s Kim Jeung-Eun of North Korean and this guy hates everything the U.S.A. stands for politically but is pretty much okay with just about anything else, especially entertainment. One of his favorites is none other than Skylark Tonight because apparently they don’t get Jimmy Fallon. This information comes just at a time when Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen), the show’s longtime producer, is looking to give the show a little more legitimacy. Mostly because a buddy of his works at 60 Minutes and is all, my show is better than your show and hurt Aaron’s feelings. Okay, so maybe not a buddy. Dave Skylark (James Franco), the show’s host and namesake, wants to meet Kim Jeung-Eun, thinking it will be the single greatest news interview since Frost/Nixon.
Aaron does his producer thing and makes contact with an insider in North Korea, arranging a meeting in the mountains of Northern China. Once there, practically stranded and woefully under prepared, an enormous military helicopter arrives with the words 미국인들은 다 죽었어야 한다 emblazoned on the side, a quaint welcoming message for the visiting Aaron. Oh wait. It literally means: All Americans Should Be Dead. Never mind. But the chick is hot, so it’s all good.
She says that there is only one condition for the interview, that the Supreme Leader prepares all his own questions. Why not? Wouldn’t be a Supreme Leader if he didn’t. Here’s the thing though. The guys agree and the deal is set. After Dave makes the big announcement that he’s going inside North Korea to have a little one-to-one with the oddly coiffed one himself, a certain organization stops by his place, expressing some interest in the project. I can’t tell you who that organization is but their initials are C.I.A. They have a small suggestion for the boys while they’re in Pyongyang, a kind of favor since they’re already gonna be there. If they don’t mind, and if they have the time, could they, you know, assassinate the leader. What? Take him out, as it were. And since they expect the guys might be a little unsure about the plan, they’ve come with a secret weapon that has proven highly effective in convincing people like Dave and Aaron in many similar situations: an attractive woman.
They say yes. So it’s off to C.I.A. headquarters for a rundown of the scheme, which, to Dave’s disappointment, doesn’t involve a gun fight, explosions, tunnels and a Seal Team 6 rescue, but rather a neurotoxin released into Kim’s palm during a handshake that takes effect twelve hours after they meet. No one will ever know what happened and Dave won’t be made famous for killing the hermit kingdom dictator, much to his outspoken opposition. Dave is an idiot. So after some not so successful trial attempts and rehearsals with the assassination, the two fly over and land in North Korea.
They meet up with Sook Yung Park, the helicopter hottie, and after a quick tour of the streets of Pyongyang, with some obvious (to us) props to fool the “stupid” Americans, they find themselves at the palatial home and compound of Kim Jeung-Eun. First things first, one more check of their bags and right away, one of the guards discovers the pack of chewing gum in which the poison is concealed, and worse, samples a piece, spitting it out, saying it “tastes like shi*t.” His 12-hour countdown clock begins now. So without the toxin, the C.I.A. drone drops a second batch, forcing Aaron to go out in the night and retrieve it, which eventually involves, um, a place where the sun don’t shine, an attacking tiger, and a naked jig in front of North Korean guards.
Eventually, the big man himself comes to their room and invites Dave to join him for a day out before the interview, giving him an inside look at life as an eternal leader. It’s not at all what Skylark expects. Kim is funny, charming, kind and has a playful side that likes drinking margarita’s and listening to Katie Perry. They take a spin in Kim’s WWII battle tank and shoot hoops in the hanger before partying with topless dancing girls. Kim Jeung-Eun is a straight up good time and totally misunderstood. Exactly what he wants Dave to think.
Meanwhile, Aaron is becoming convinced that Dave isn’t going to go through with the plan, and decides that it’s he who has to be the hero. Using a backup strip of poison, he applies it to his hand and awaits to meet Kim. When the chance presents itself, Skylark catches on and blocks the greeting, ushering his new friend Kim out of harm’s way, following him to a big meeting with the government heads. But Aaron hasn’t any time to think about the failure. Sook shows up and after closing the door, confessing something she’s a little hesitant to say. She’s unhappy with her leader and wants to see change in her country. Oh, and she also wants Aaron to mount her like a thoroughbred on race day.
So now Dave is in the hands of a master manipulator abandoning his mission to kill the despot and Aaron is having sex and forming an alliance with a top official looking to remove the supreme leader and install democracy by having the people rise up and fight for it. I said “rise up” and “sex” in the same sentence. The interview may not be what anyone is expecting.
And that is exactly what most people thought when watching the film. Directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the movie is an unstable collection of hit and miss gags and wild shifts in tone. With the two leads in place, no one can watch and not have some assumptions for how the story will unfold, or at least the manner it will be presented. You either get it or you don’t. Rogen and Franco have been elevated beyond self parody, thanks especially to the equally uneven but highly satisfying This Is The End. The two don’t even try to be anything other than “Seth Rogen” and “James Franco” characters in The Interview, seemingly so in on the joke, they shot right past it. Franco especially is over-the-top, too much so in many scenes, so self-referential and satirical of his own on-screen persona that it becomes not just distracting, but disappointing. Image how much better it could have been if Dave wasn’t a buffoon, but rather an intelligent journalist who is still manipulated. The story itself is really rather inventive and had far more potential than is ultimately realized, spending too much time on moments that fall flat or try too hard to be “Rogen / Franco” gags. I’m not saying the tiger drone probe bit wasn’t funny, just not in this movie. Much is marred by racism, sexism, and homophobic jokes that are as unsettling as they are off the mark. No doubt that this is the point and it could be argued that Rogen and Franco are trying to be edgy for the sake of edginess, but it feels weak instead of clever.
Now time for some backpedaling. The film actually has a lot going for it and if you’re a fan of Rogen and Franco, which I mostly am, it is a good, if mostly forgettable time. Honestly, it’s the controversy surrounding its release that will keep it in anyone’s memory. The jarring shifts from comedy to brutal Tarantino-esque violence sometimes work, and Rogen is his most adorable yet, somehow grounding the whole experience from start to finish. Randall Park as Kim Jeung-Eun is surprisingly funny and Diana Bang as Sook steals every scene she is in. Yet it’s the early scenes that really set this up to be something special. Eminem’s epic coming out interview is the single funniest moment in the movie, and the behind the scenes look at a TV talk show might be where the real story should have stayed.
Strangely, the actual interview in the movie comes up as the lowest point of the movie, diverging from potty humor and weeping to finger biting and anal, um, violation? (It involves a camera joystick so if you haven’t seen it, then that’s about all you need to know.) And it’s no surprise that Dave’s dream of explosions, tunnels, and a Seal Team 6 rescue are part of the elaborate screw-it-let’s-throw-everthing-at-them ending. It somehow works. Irreverence is the name of the game.
Scene Setup: Aaron and Dave are having differing opinions about the mission to assassinate Kim Jeung-Eun. While on board with the plan from the start, Dave has had a change of heart due to his busy day cavorting about the palace with Kim, who has shown him a rather manly day of big guns, big games, and big boobs. Utterly convinced that Kim is not the cruel dictator he has been portrayed as being, he now believes the young ruler is a victim of his childhood, suppressed by his father’s ideals and burdened with caring for a nation he wasn’t ready to take over. Aaron on the other hand calls it crap, telling Dave he is being manipulated, that the prison camps and starvation and oppression are all entirely real. When Aaron attempts to take out Kim on his own, Dave intervenes and guides the Supreme Leader to safety without him ever knowing he was in danger. They head to a state dinner honoring a few fallen comrades (chewing gum related) in a nearby luxury restaurant where Dave sees a slight change in his new BFF.
The Scene: (Timestamp 1:08:08) Dave is sitting at the head of the table with his arm behind Kim Jueng-Eun, smoking a cigarette and drinking alcohol. He’s spent the day with Kim, bonding as it were, feeling his place is secure beside the leader. Kim is clearly a little tipsy. He’s slumped and the once pleasant, jovial smile he has worn since we met his had been replaced by an ugly sneer. He is speaking to his commanders and government officials, all dutifully sitting heads down, listening to Kim. His words are a little uneasy, teasing that he’s less than thrilled. He talks of loyalty, how the men who died had it and how it was the cornerstone of his father and grandfather’s success as leaders. Dave echoes the sentiment, recalling a now deceased pet dog. Not quite the same. But Kim continues and his tone shifts, denouncing those without loyalty. This includes asking how he can prevail against so many enemies such as defectors, South Korean capitalists and the people in the room who think he is not capable of filling his father’s shoes. In a huff, he shouts that these people deserve no humanity. Awkward. Dave senses something is off and fidgets in his seat. Kim goes on to swear total and absolute annihilation of those opposing him, even it means burning a billion people in his country and others. Time for a quick exit. Dave squirms his way out of the restaurant and heads out into the night street. There, around the corner, he comes across the same grocery store he had seen on the tour, when he saw a little fat kid happy to be eating of the bountiful offerings of North Korea. In this case, a giant swirly lollipop.
Now that he’s alone, Dave enters that grocery story and makes a discovery that should be shocking only to him. The whole place is fake. A put on. A façade. A prop. The wall is a painting and the the food is plastic. Surprise! He got honey-potted. (That’s not gonna catch on.) The revelation is traumatic and ends with him lifting decorative grapefruits into the air, screaming at a mammoth poster of Kim.
This is the turning point for Dave and it’s important because even though we know he’s being lied to, and Aaron knows he’s being lied to, he has to discover it on his own. And it’s not what the C.I.A. tells him, or what he’s read in the news, not the stats that he’s seen or even Aaron reminding him of the atrocities committed all around him. It’s a few baskets of prop fruit in a fake storefront. That’s what Dave needs to see to make the connection that everything about Kim and his government and the country that he rules are just like this grocery.
Franco does a fine job here, finally revealing some depth in his character. Dave struggles with the reality of what is happening, not convinced by what he sees until he puts his hands actually on it. This is what David is, and in some respects, we learn that this is all Dave knows. He is a showman, a product of his own series, a prop himself on display used to get ratings and drive celebrities into the spotlight for ridiculous things. It’s fitting that he learns this while alone, because Dave has never been alone, always surrounded by the flash and adoration of his fans and producers. In a hermit kingdom in a country isolated from the rest of the world, on a barren street in a mock store, Dave discovers that it isn’t just Kim Jeung-Eun who has manipulated him, but perhaps himself. Blinded by something that could never be, he ignored the warnings of those trying to help, and let himself become a fool for it. And far too easily. It took only this one store front and some fake fruit to convince him there is no poverty or starvation in North Korea, and that everything he was told was a lie. That’s how strongly he wanted to believe. Holding those grapefruits up to the sky now, each represent him and Kim, two hollow, phony props for display, pretty on the outside, empty inside. That all is about to change.
Directors: Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen
Writers: Dan Sterling (screenplay), Seth Rogen (story)
Stars: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Randall Park