It turns out the joke is on us.
The first thing you need to know about The Interview (★★★), which is now available for streaming via YouTube, is that it is as much a lampoon of American ignorance and excess as it is a parody of anyone from or in North Korea.
The second thing that you need to know is that it is very, very funny, albeit in fits and starts.
The film opens with a way, way over-the-top sequence of a young North Korean girl singing an anthem before a firing missile. The translation, via subtitles, informs us that the singer hopes that everyone in America dies horribly, that she wishes our women to be raped while our children watch (didn’t Hal threaten the French with that prospect in Henry V?), and that she wants us to know we are all fat.
Cut to America. Entertainment reporter Dave Skylark (Jame Franco) is interviewing Eminem about–ironically–his over-the-top song lyrics. When the rapper parries claims that his songs are homophobic by outing himself as a homosexual, his manager fights with show producer Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen) to cut the transmission while a stunned Skylark confusedly asks the rapper to elaborate. “‘Gay’ can mean a lot of things…”
The interview within the movie and the stock footage of NBC’s Brian Williams quoting a source making the inevitable comparison between Kim Jong-un and Hitler smartly set up two of the film’s major motifs: the increasingly empty nature of mass-media rhetoric and the inability of most Americans to distinguish between what is politically, culturally, and socially important and what is simply manufactured circus lunacy.
Those themes are accentuated through a sharply written exchange between Aaron and a colleague who works at 60 Minutes and who denigrates what Aaron does for a living. Dave is ecstatic about his ratings bonanza, but the only vocabulary he has to express himself is through mass-media references: he tries out an extended Lord of the Rings metaphor, totally unaware of how the larger narrative context of Tolkien’s fantasy makes his comparison a self-indicting one.
Then our comedic duo find out that Kim Jong-un is supposedly a fan of Dave’s show. Aaron sees a potential interview as a chance to reestablish his journalistic credibility. Dave sees his considerable celebrity getting even bigger. (Such excitement, like all excitement in the movie, is measured through the size of his erection.) Then Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) asks the pair to use the interview as a means of covertly assassinating the North Korean dictator.
It is at this point that the film loses a bit of its sharpness. It was probably too much to hope for that the entire film would be on par with the terrific opening act, but the middle parts of the film are definitely a bit of a come down. There’s lots of crass sexual talk and plenty of bathroom humor surrounding Aaron having to hide a (large) capsule in his anus and claims that Kim Jong-un does not defecate or urinate. (Dave’s willingness to at least entertain the possibility that this rumor is true is one of the many ways the film underlines the similarities between the allegedly brainwashed North Korean populace and the allegedly well-informed American citizenry.)
The Interview is being touted as a project from “the Western Capitalist Pigs who Brought you Neighbors and This is the End,” but this section is most reminiscent of South Park. (Screenplay writer Dan Sterling is credited with several early episodes of the Comedy Central show.) That’s an important connection, because if anyone wanders into this movie based on current events curiosity, his or her return on investment will be largely dependent on how inured he or she is to bombastic scatological and perverted humor.
Yet as with South Park, I find a genuine cultural insight underneath the layers of raunchiness and infantile swearing. Agent Lacey professes to be offended at the accusation that she is “honey-potting” Dave. There is something ironic–and while not subtle also not particularly overstated–about making Dave and Aaron the ones with the moral/ethical objections to covert government assassination. Dave may not know who Stalin is (“in my country, it’s pronounced ‘Stallone'”), but he–like most Americans–instinctively knows right from wrong.
So too do the North Koreans–most of them. anyway. They know they are being lied to, and they know that Kim Jong-un is less the problem than is a system of governance that allows leaders to lie with impunity. It is here that–I’ll just go ahead and say it–the film is genuinely subversive. The North Koreans play along with Kim’s lies in fear of reprisals. What’s our excuse?
The film toys with the notion that we may have arrived at a tipping point, one where Americans have willingly and happily eaten media and government bullshit for so long that we can either no longer tell the difference between it and objective factual reporting or don’t really care one way or the other. The latter prospect is a bit more frightening, since those who justify lies and propaganda as being useful or even necessary are increasingly indistinguishable from the people they use that propaganda to brainwash us against.
But The Interview is, in the final analysis, also a comedy in the old-fashioned sense of the word. It ends happily, both narratively and thematically. As such, it postulates that while we are close to that tipping point, we haven’t gone over the edge just yet.
Pray God we never do.
One footnote not about the movie: YouTube movie channel was not exactly ready for its closeup. I had to buy the film online but play it via the YouTube channel on my Roku device. The controls were hard to manage and very counter-intuitive. I was unable to use the pause or fast-forward buttons effectively, and the audio level was different on different videos. (When the film finished, it went right to a different video and the volume was loud.)