Forget “Is it funny?” The question now is “Was it worth it?”
“The Interview,” a genial, occasionally incisive, generally lackadaisical comedy about a dunderheaded journalist tasked with assassinating Kim Jong Un, was never supposed to get this far. As one of several movies opening Christmas Day, it was aimed squarely at fans of the humor perfected by Seth Rogen and his frequent collaborator James Franco — humor that usually centers around partying, having sex, flirting “bromantically” with each other and ingratiating themselves with viewers who can’t resist charms that range from nebbishy to disarmingly dumb.
That “The Interview” landed amid the brouhaha of a hacking scandal, geopolitical crisis and First Amendment case study is as improbable as one of Rogen and Franco’s absurd plots. After dramatically pulling the movie from release last week, the film’s parent studio, Sony Pictures Entertainment, finally saw fit to make it available to independent theaters and online. “The Interview,” it turns out, isn’t nearly as sharp or politically pointed as the attendant kerfuffle suggested. But Rogen and Evan Goldberg — who co-directed “The Interview” from a script that they wrote with Dan Sterling — manage to make some germane points about life in North Korea and the repressive leadership of the Kim dynasty that — for the Hermit Nation’s young fans of silly sight gags — sophomorically raunchy jokes and scatological japes could prove to be surprisingly galvanizing, maybe even revolutionary.
As “The Interview” begins, a fatuous talk show host named Dave Skylark (Franco) is enjoying the existence of an obliviously cheerful water bug, skimming life’s surface, interviewing celebrities and soaking up all of the perks of his undemanding job. His producer Aaron (Rogen) has more high-minded aspirations, and when the two learn that their show is one of Kim’s favorites, they hit on the idea of traveling to North Korea to interview him. Skylark eagerly predicts that it will be “the biggest interview since Frosty Nixon!”
Soon — and, atmospherically enough, the day after an ecstasy-fueled bender — Skylark and Aaron are contacted by a comely CIA agent (Lizzy Caplan) who asks that, while they’re over there, they do the agency a big favor and “take him out.”
“Like, for drinks?” Aaron blearily responds. Make no mistake: “The Interview” doesn’t depart much at all from a goofy, party-hearty playbook defined by such Rogen comedies as “This Is the End” and “Neighbors.” Peppered with cameos and running pop culture gags from “The Lord of the Rings” to the oeuvre of Katy Perry, this is a movie firmly rooted in childish things, regardless of its admittedly grown-up subject matter.
As baggy and undisciplined as “The Interview” is, the humor is generally harmless and even endearing, especially when Skylark winds up bonding with Kim (played with welcome and soft-spoken understatement by Randall Park), and the two discover a mutual love of margaritas, guacamole and the aforementioned Ms. Perry. What’s more, “The Interview” belies its dum-dum bona fides by making some genuinely perceptive observations: Aaron, the sober-minded conscience of the team, is constantly reminding Skylark of the famine, concentration camps and firing squads that lie behind Kim’s carefully choreographed facade of full supermarkets and seemingly well-fed children. When Skylark begins to buy into Kim’s propaganda, “The Interview” becomes a sharp, if never entirely serious, satire on media manipulation as it’s practiced by dictators and movie stars alike.
Indeed, there is a deadly serious moment late in “The Interview” that lands with force all the more affecting for being so unexpected, when Skylark sets up one of his signature softballs only to sandbag Kim with an utterly straight-faced question about starving his own people. So pointed is that query — and so inspiring is a sequence that seeks to unseat totalitarianism by way of the press rather than guns — that the hyper-violent sequences following it seem lazy and gratuitous. This goes double for the now-notorious stunt in which Kim’s head graphically explodes.
That tasteless gag could easily have been left on the cutting room floor. Similarly, “The Interview” doesn’t necessarily gain from using Kim’s real name rather than fictionalizing him a la Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.” Then again, if North Korean viewers ever get a chance to see their godlike leader depicted in such humbling human terms, some theorists think that might be enough to plant the seeds of a populist revolution. “The Interview” has already started a few unlikely firestorms. Only time will tell where and how far they spread.
(112 minutes, at West End Cinema and streaming online) is rated R for pervasive profanity, crude and sexual humor, nudity, some drug use, and bloody violence.