Monday, December 29, 2014

THE INTERVIEW, In Hilarious Fashion, Leaves No Target Un-Besmirched


- Never did I anticipate that THE INTERVIEW would become the international incident that it has. I won't spend time recapping the sheer insanity that has occurred over the last few weeks, except to say that, improbably, an over-the-top Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy has become the talk of the world, and has therefore attracted the attention - and drawn the scrutiny - of an unlikely assemblage of film critics, journalists, politicians, and seemingly everyone else in the known universe. People who never would have seen this movie have seen it. People with delicate constitutions. People who don't find an hour and a half of brilliantly-crafted dick jokes all that funny or interesting. People whose definition of good comedy starts and ends at pre-00's TV sitcoms. I'm not here to insult anyone, but as someone who always tries to talk about movies in the context of what they are and what they're trying to be, I have to give a finger of shame to all those talking out of turn about THE INTERVIEW. If you don't like or don't understand this style of humor, then don't watch it, and for the love of all that is holy, don't provide your highly-subjective opinion like its the gospel. The fact is,  the state of comedy in America is in a really weird place, and has been for a long time. We live in an age of niche comedy, where mom and dad can happily laugh along to TV Land re-runs while their teenaged kids crack up to obscure Adult Swim animation. And each presumes that the other's preferred brand of comedy is garbage. In an age where it's easy to go down the rabbit hole and become a hardcore fan of something, we're seeing an increasing divide between the comedy nerds and the people who know nerds from their favorite show, The Big Bang Theory. What comedy nerds know is that a lot of great comedy is, on the surface, completely dumb. But they also know that it takes a real brilliance to make great dumb comedy, and that often even the raunchiest, silliest comedy contains its own unique form of genius.

So listen up, people. If you're going to critique comedy, then understand what makes good comedy. Understand that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are very smart people who are very good at what they do. Understand that there is a cleverness to their films, a sense of comedic timing, and an underlying wit that is leagues ahead of more pandering-to-the-lowest-common-denominator comedies that THE INTERVIEW will inevitably get lumped in with by people who don't know any better. I'm not trying to be a jerk or a snob here, I'm just urging people to give their thoughts more educated context then "derp, The Interview sucked, I didn't laugh once - those guys are idiots!" No. Appreciate the art-form or keep your views to yourself. Or, at the least, have the good sense to acknowledge that the film just isn't your cup of tea, so you may not be the best-qualified to speak on it. I get it - there's an undeniable absurdity in the idea that *this*, of all movies, was the one that became a rallying cry for freedom of speech, that led to Presidential comments and political debates. Because of that, there's inevitably going to be a backlash, both overt and more passive-aggressive. I can't tell you how many times I've read: "I had no interest in this stupid movie, but I'll see it because patriotism." Again: no. See it or don't see it - that's your call. But don't be blind to the point here, the point which your passive-aggressive qualifiers are in fact undermining: that, by-god, we live in a country where we are free to be funny in whatever manner we choose. We live in a country in which comedy *can* be celebrated as an art form - a place where the very *idea* of comedy - cutting through the barriers of convention and getting at some greater Truth (even if said truth is absurd) - is valid.

So how is THE INTERVIEW? I wouldn't put it quite at the sublime laugh-riot levels of last year's This Is The End, or even say that it's as good as the bro's vs. schmoes brilliance of this summer's Neighbors. But it is really, really funny. In many ways, it's the silliest movie that Seth Rogen has yet made, with a lot of very over-the-top cartoonish gags, with barely a foot - or even a toe - in reality. And that might not be everyone's bag, but I think it fits. A place as strange and fundamentally absurd as Kim Jong Un's North Korea deserves to be treated absurdly. And a guy who claims to talk to dolphins and to not defecate simply has to be taken to task and skewered. When the reality is so fundamentally silly, so too is the satire.

As always though, Rogen and Goldberg's script isn't *really* even about North Korea, but instead about two man-children who are forced to (at least slightly) grow up. Rogen plays Aaron, a TV producer who left a career in more serious journalism to work on a fluffy, Access Hollywood-style entertainment show. James Franco plays Dave, the over-eager host of the show who is also Aaron's best friend and biggest bad-influence. When Aaron finds out that Kim Jong Un is in fact a fan of his show, he sees it as a chance to branch out to covering more serious subject matter. He arranges an interview with Un, but before he and Dave can head to North Korea, they are confronted by the FBI. Given the access to the notorious dictated that Dave is set to be granted, the feds want Dave to be the catalyst for a top-secret assassination plot.

Rogen and Franco are a well-matched comedic duo, with Rogen's stoner every-man a good foil for Franco's slightly-crazed eccentric. Franco goes full-on broad with his comedy here, and goes full-throttle with his "I AM ACTING FUNNY IN A COMEDY MOVIE" affectation. It gets a little grating at times, and I do wonder if the movie would have worked a bit better had Franco toned it down just a tad. But Rogen's more grounded character - and the overall sharpness of the script - helps to offset the fact that Franco is slightly overdoing it. The fact is, the situations Franco finds himself in are completely insane, and so his slightly insane character is not completely out of place. As it turns out, Franco's Dave befriends the fawning Kim Jong Un, who acts like an insecure dork who's just become the best friend of the coolest kid in school. Un tries to impress Dave with his cars, tanks, food, and women, and the easily-manipulated Dave soon finds himself warming up to the childlike Un. Randall Park plays Kim Jong Un to perfection - he comes off as an overgrown kid who balances moments of charm with moments of unbridled psychopathic scariness. The running joke is that Un is pretty much stuck in a phase of teenage insecurity - worried that liking Margaritas and Katy Perry might make him gay (responds Franco: "If liking margaritas and Katy Perry makes you gay, then who would ever want to be straight?"), and spinning all manner of absurd lies about his supposed god-like status. But Park is great here - extremely funny, but also scary and effective as a villain when need be.

There are some great supporting players who also knock it out of the park here. Lizzy Caplan goes above and beyond as Agent Lacey, Aaron and Dave's ultra-competent and perpetually frustrated handler. Diana Bang is also a standout as Sook, a top-ranking lieutenant of Kim Jong Un who harbors feelings of resentment for her supreme leader. Bang really kicks some ass here, and also displays a real knack for comedy in some of her scenes with Rogen. Also, have to give a shout-out to Veep's Timothy Simons, who has a really small role but delivers maybe the funniest line of the film during an extended Lord of the Rings riff.

Evan Goldberg really shows off his directorial chops here. The film foregoes the bright, hyper-saturated look of most modern comedies, instead looking more like the sort of action/thriller that the movie seeks to lampoon. And when the action heats up, it's super well-directed, with some hilarious yet pretty-damn-badass fight scenes and even a tank chase. Yep.

If you don't like scatalogical humor, then you should probably avoid this one altogether. But man, for those of us who can appreciate well-honed raunch, THE INTERVIEW delivers it in spades. But again, you've got to respect the extent to which Rogen and Goldberg know exactly what they're doing with the movie's humor - gleefully undermining every (and I mean every) moment with the potential for serious dramatic weight with something silly and wonderfully absurd. There are occasionally stretches where the movie flatlines just a bit, but overall, it produces pretty great gags on a consistent basis.

It's all pretty silly and funny, but I do think there's a method to at least some of the madness. There are no sacred cows here - the joke is on Rogen and Franco's characters as much as it is on anyone else. But beneath the absurdity there's also a pretty biting takedown of Kim Jong Un's North Korea - not in a way that's incredibly substantive or serious, but more so in that the movie 100% calls out Un on everything about him that, in real-life, is just as silly and absurd as it's portrayed in the film. The movie holds up a funhouse mirror to Un, imagining a world in his image - where everyone acts with all the reason and enlightenment of a moody fifteen-year-old. This is the absurdity that a guy like Un deserves thrown back at him. In the 40's, Hitler was punched out by patriotic re-imaginings of his concept of the "ubermensch" - KO'd by the likes of Captain America and Superman. In the 80's, we imagined rugged lone wolves like Rambo to singlehandedly take down the Communist machine. Now, for the guy who talks to dolphins and has no butthole, it's hard to argue that cult-comedy stoner maestros Rogen and Franco are the unlikely, absurdist heroes that Kim Jong Un deserves.

Is THE INTERVIEW a comedy classic worthy of the special place in history it shall now receive? Debatable. But is it the kind of ballsy movie that's worth rallying around, as an example of freedom of speech at its most free? Yes it is. This isn't a dumb movie - its characters are dumb, but the people behind the scenes know that, and they know what they're doing here. They've made a very funny film, but it also happens to be a film that stands for something: the All-American idea that no one, be they your best friend or the dictator of a foreign power, is above getting some egg on their face. Especially if said egg is well and rightly deserved. It's fitting then that the film fades out to the over-the-top power chords of the Scorpions' "Winds of Change." Comedy is just another form of rock n' roll, baby. A little dirty, a little misunderstood ... but man, it can help to tear down those walls more than you might think.

My Grade: A-

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