North Korea can rest easy: America comes off looking at least as bad as the DPRK in “The Interview,” an alleged satire that’s about as funny as a communist food shortage, and just as protracted. For all its pre-release hullabaloo — including two big thumbs down from Sony hackers the Guardians of Peace — this half-baked burlesque about a couple of cable-news bottom-feeders tasked with assassinating Korean dictator Kim Jong-un won’t bring global diplomacy to its knees, but should feel like a kind of terror attack to any audience with a limited tolerance for anal penetration jokes. Extreme devotees of stars James Franco and Seth Rogen (who also co-directed with Evan Goldberg) may give this Christmas offering a pass, but all others be advised: An evening of cinematic waterboarding awaits.
Rogen and Goldberg, who made their combined directorial debut on last year’s shrewdly funny Jewish apocalypse romp, “This Is the End,” come down quite a few pegs for this follow-up, which seems to have been born out of Dennis Rodman’s eyebrow-raising 2013 visits to North Korea, but never really developed beyond the concept stage. (The screenplay is credited to first-timer Dan Sterling, a veteran TV writer-producer, from a story by Sterling, Rogen and Goldberg.)
That concept revolves around “Skylark Tonight,” a high-rated, low-minded TV talk show hosted by preening pretty-boy Dave Skylark (Franco, decked out in pinstripes and paisley pocket squares), who’s like an unholy cross between Larry King and Perez Hilton. A typical Skylark evening might consist of Eminem coming out as gay or Rob Lowe coming out as bald (scenes that allow for the obligatory parade of self-deprecating celebrity cameos). But a decade into the program’s run, serious journalistic credibility remains as elusive as on day one — a fact that weighs heavy on the heart of Skylark’s producer, Aaron Rapaport (Rogen), a journalism school grad who got into the business with dreams of “60 Minutes” dancing in his head.
Eager to cheer his buddy up, Skylark proposes that the duo land an exclusive interview with Kim, who’s known to be a fan of the show and who’s back in the headlines after recently test-launching a nuclear missile at an uninhabited Pacific island. When Kim proves a willing subject (after a mildly amusing sequence in which an ill-equipped Rogen hikes to a remote northern Chinese mountaintop to meet with North Korean government negotiators), a ratings bonanza seems in the offing. But first, the CIA arrives in the form of the lissome Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan), who draws on her feminine wiles (“honeypotting,” in the movie’s parlance) to persuade Dave and Aaron to do the Agency a solid and kill Kim while they’re at it. “It’s 2014. Women are smart now,” observes Dave — a line that would seem funnier if “The Interview” didn’t keep acting positively agog whenever a smart woman actually turns up.
There are the makings here of a buffoonish espionage farce in the tradition of Woody Allen’s “Bananas” or Elaine May’s underrated “Ishtar,” but just when “The Interview” should be revving its comic engines, it seems to hit the brakes. By far the movie’s funniest, most outre scene is its first: a phalanx of patriotic North Korean schoolchildren singing an anthem whose lyrics are translated as “Die, America, die” and “May your women all be raped by beasts of the jungle.” But once Dave and Aaron themselves arrive in Pyongyang (actually Vancouver), they are ferried to their quarters in Kim’s sprawling presidential palace, and there they remain for most of the rest of the movie’s running time. It’s a strategy that deprives “The Interview” of one of its richest comic possibilities: seeing these two characters at play in the world’s most isolated, information-deprived “republic.”
Indeed, the 24 million-strong North Korean masses are scarcely glimpsed in a movie that quickly settles into a kind of slapstick palace intrigue, with Kim’s glowering security chief (James Yi) shooting dagger-like glances at the American interlopers while a pert propaganda minister (Diana Bang) throws come-hither ones Aaron’s way. Rogen and Goldberg never get a sustained comic rhythm going, and they bungle even some of their better gags. The slow-acting poison with which the characters are meant to contaminate Kim, concealed on a small adhesive strip, practically begs to be passed around like a hot potato, or perhaps lost in a Band-Aid factory, but all we get is a rather lame bit about Aaron having to conceal the poison (and its large conical container) inside his rectum. And when all else fails in “The Interview” (which it often does), to the rectum the movie invariably returns.
Most of the movie plays like an extended parody of MTV’s “Cribs” series, as the mutually starstruck Dave and Kim (Randall Park) go joyriding in a military tank and bond over their mutual love for fast cars, loose women and … Katy Perry (a karaoke duet that isn’t a patch on Franco’s unforgettable rendition of Britney Spears’ “Everytime” from “Spring Breakers”). Kim himself is all too predictably depicted as a petulant man-child with major daddy and masculinity issues (gay panic being another of the movie’s inexhaustible comic chestnuts), but Park (“Veep,” “Neighbors”) plays the role with an infantile glee that gives his scenes more kick than they deserve.
Better still is Bang, who has the benefit of playing the smartest character in the movie and who acts out her (inexplicable) animal attraction to Rogen with guileless abandon. She comes equipped with her own subversive plan: Instead of killing Kim, she proposes, Dave and Aaron should humanize him, Barbara Walters-style, on national television, thereby dispelling the official notion that he is a superhuman being unencumbered by ordinary human needs (such as bowel movements). But that plan, along with what little goodwill “The Interview” has amassed up to then, is literally shot to pieces during a long and excessively gory, “Pineapple Express”-style third act that seems to have dropped in from a 1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.
Oppressive, fascistic dictatorships have proved fertile ground for comic filmmakers from Chaplin and Lubitsch to Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino (whose “Inglourious Basterds” is another obvious reference point here). But “The Interview” is scarcely as funny or absurd as the average news item about North Korea itself, with two main characters who are so aggressively annoying that you secretly hope the assassination plot will turn against them. Franco, who can be an inspired, inventive actor when he wants to be, plays Skylark as a smart person’s idea of a stupid person, and after a while his puppyish energy and incessant ear-to-ear grin become toxic to behold. Rogen, meanwhile, soldiers along as dutifully as he can, playing his sad-sack Sancho Panza routine to diminishing returns. Where oh where are Team America: World Police when we really need them?
The end result is shockingly genteel. Taking potshots at Kim is like shooting fermented fish in a barrel; doing that while maintaining a real undercurrent of nuclear menace (a la “Dr. Strangelove”), or the sense that North Korea might be capable of a large-scale global computer hack, would be something else altogether. Alas, these North Koreans don’t seem capable of hacking a Commodore 64. The hype around “The Interview” suggests a take-no-prisoners dirty bomb of a movie, but the reality is more like a deflated whoopee cushion. It goes splat.