Dec 25, 2014

Movie Review: The Interview (2014)

Ever since the Thunderball references in a deleted scene from Pineapple Express, I’ve wanted to see Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg take on a spy parody. They do just that in The Interview (co-directing from a script they co-wrote with Dan Sterling), but take a typically non-traditional approach. Rather than using James Bond as their leaping-off point like so many spy parodies, their touchstone would appear to be The Chairman, the 1969 movie that found Gregory Peck’s scientist interviewing and possibly (inadvertently) assassinating a then sitting political leader, China’s Chairman Mao. The premise to The Interview is very similar. James Franco plays an Andy Cohen-like fluff talkshow host, Dave Skylark, who lands the interview opportunity of a lifetime when it turns out North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is a fan of his, and willing to grant him his first worldwide sit-down interview. But as Skylark and his producer Aaron Rapaport prepare for this opportunity of a lifetime, they’re approached by the CIA and asked to assassinate Kim while they’re at it. Whether or not this controversial plotline is in good taste or is even responsible filmmaking is certainly a valid debate, but not one I’ll engage in here. Instead I’ll be reviewing it as a spy movie.

Skylark may be seen as a softball interviewer, but as the film opens he manages to draw a pretty amazing revelation out of Eminem (in a truly hilarious cameo), and coaxes Rob Lowe to make a surprising on-air admission. Be that as it may, Kim and his propaganda team see Skylark as a good candidate to stick to their script of pre-approved questions celebrating the glory of North Korea and invite him to the presidential palace with unprecedented access. The CIA comes calling in the appealing form of Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan), who counts on using Skylark in much the same way as Kim. While it seems rather unlikely that the CIA would ever invite a muckraking journalist of all people to help it contravene Executive Order 12333 and assassinate a foreign leader, Agent Lacey certainly has Dave’s number. Aaron realizes what’s happening and pulls Dave aside, telling him, “They’re honeypotting us!”

“What?” asks Dave.

“It’s an attractive spy woman who lures men into doing shit they’re not supposed to do!” Aaron explains, not only providing malapropismic exposition on honey traps, but also setting up one of the movie’s running gags. (Every character seems to be either “honeypotting” or “honeydicking” someone, to use the movie’s amusing, gender-dependent vocabulary. Whether this terminology ends up entering the actual spy lexicon like le Carre’s remains to be seen.) Dave insists that such an insinuation is sexist (because “women are smart now”), a sentiment Agent Lacey herself later echoes, but Aaron enumerates how the sexy agent is playing to Dave’s known predilections: big boobs, bangs and glasses.

“Fake glasses?” asks an incredulous Dave, to which Aaron sarcastically deadpans, “How could the CIA come up with such a thing?” in the first of several clever riffs on spy gadgetry.

The plan calls for Dave to wear a Ricin poison patch on his palm, dosing the Supreme Leader with a twelve hour delay when he shakes his hand.  Along with some conveniently multi-functional wrist watches, the Agency provides the duo with some specially designed luggage in which to smuggle this tiny weapon. But Dave deems their choice of bag far too unfashionable, and makes his own arrangements setting off a series of blunders. After losing the first patch, Lacey’s team races to send their poorly-chosen assassins another one via drone. This leads to one of the movie’s funniest sequences, involving a drone, a tiger, covert communications, night vision imagery, and (this being Rogan and Goldberg) Aaron’s anus.

Besides the initially ludicrous premise, Rogan and Goldberg make the wise choice to keep The Interview’s spyjinks fairly low-key and plausible—but still all too easy to screw up in the hands of two idiots. We’ve seen idiots fumble with over-the-top Bondian stuff plenty of times before, so it’s refreshing to see them fumble something so credible. As in all of this duo’s movies, there is a somewhat half-baked“bromance” at the film’s center (and there are also a lot of funny Lord of the Rings references), but it was this fresh approach to spoofing spy tropes that I found funniest. Less funny was the violence. I’m in no way squeamish about violence in movies, but I do find graphic violence (even of the over-the-top, comedic variety) out of place in a spy comedy, and like Pineapple Express and This Is the End (only moreso), The Interview becomes very, very violent. There is an unnecessary level of gore that I found off-putting as the film careens towards its jaw-dropping and (until it ended up splashed all over the news, anyway) unpredictable denouement. But even at this point, the violence is still laced with plenty of humor—both scatological and satirical. American foreign policy takes a well-aimed jab when one character asks, “How many times can the U.S. make the same mistake?” and Dave replies emphatically and patriotically, “As many times as it takes!”

The Interview also scores well in its production design. Production Designer Jon Billington (World War Z) creates a truly imposing and thoroughly Communist edifice in Kim’s luxury bunker compound. There are lots and lots of greys in this North Korea, and all feels very real, even if these locations also boast a decidedly Ken Adam spin.

I enjoyed the first half of The Interview, but the violent excesses of the third act ultimately left a bad taste in my mouth. Spy fans who come across it on TV in the future should certainly watch at least the first half, and will be rewarded with an interesting take on the spy parody subgenre and quite a few genuine laughs. But anyone expecting more from this movie thanks to its dramatic will it or won't it be released? controversy will probably find themselves let down, and wishing that if this sort of brouhaha had to be stirred up, it had been over a better film. Because ultimately, The Interview is a wildly uneven movie, and at best a mixed bag.

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