Surprise — “The Interview” is upon us, released by a shamed Sony Pictures on Christmas Eve in digital streaming formats (YouTube, Google Play, Xbox Video, and the Sony website SeetheInterview.com) and on Christmas Day in about 300 theaters around the country, including Cambridge’s Apple Cinemas. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, so this is the little movie that caused the big fuss.
And little it is, a dopey bro-com that piddles along delivering mild laughs until it turns overly, unamusingly bloody in the climactic scenes. The daring of its makers — co-writer/co-director/star Seth Rogen, co-writer/co-director Evan Goldberg, co-writer Dan Sterling, star James Franco — extends only as far as using a living, breathing, notoriously humorless, and nuclear-armed head of state as the target of all the fun. After all we’ve been through on this, it would be nice to report that “The Interview” was a great movie. But I think we all knew what to expect, and on that score — disappointment — the film does not disappoint.
It’s genial enough for most of its running, and Franco gets to spoof his own lightweight image as Dave Skylark, the fatuous star of a TV entertainment news show. Rogen plays Aaron Rappaport, Dave’s comparatively level-headed friend and producer, bent on finding the next celebrity scandal to light up the show’s Twitter feed and raise ratings. Embarrassed by a snide rival at “60 Minutes,” Aaron vows to put Dave on a hard news story, and when he reads that Kim Jong-un of North Korea is a fan of “Skylark Tonight,” arrangements are made for an interview with the reclusive dictator. “This will be as big as Frosty Nixon!” crows Dave. Those are the jokes, folks.
Enter the CIA in the persons of Agents Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) and Botwin (Reese Alexander), who enlist our frat-row Hope and Crosby in an assassination plot involving poisonous handshakes and covert code names (Dave’s is “Dung Beetle.”) It has been pointed out that Charlie Chaplin tried to blow up Hitler (a.k.a. Adenoid Hynkel) in 1940’s “The Great Dictator,” so there’s precedent of a sort. But “The Interview” takes the idea to extremes while chortling complacently at its own nerve. It says something about the bubble that Hollywood content creators live in that no one seems to have seriously considered whether this was a wise or responsible move, overall. The general political stance of “The Interview” could be summed up by the patriotic tagline from 2004’s “Team America: World Police” — the one I can’t quote in a family newspaper.
Once in North Korea, Aaron falls for a hottie Army officer (Diana Bang) while Dave bobbles the poison and ends up bonding with the dictator, played by Randall Park with less baby fat and more charisma than the real article. The most scurrilously funny scenes in the movie posit Kim Jong-un as a spoiled but sensitive boy-man, underappreciated by his late father, prone to weeping over Katy Perry lyrics, and eager to show off his toys to his new friend. Standing in front of a WWII-era tank, he brags that “this was a gift to my grandfather from Stalin.” “In America,” Dave responds, “we pronounce it ‘Stallone’.”
“The Interview” is of the opinion that a smutty joke isn’t any good unless it’s repeated three times, so there’s much badinage about the missile capsule Aaron has to insert up his rectum in one scene. Eventually even Dave’s eyes are opened to the cruelty of Kim’s reign, and the climactic televised interview turns into an on-camera scolding and a control room fistfight, complete with several fingers being bitten off in gory detail and a fiery demise for Kim. The filmmakers think they’re calling tyranny to account, but the more “The Interview” protests, the more naive it seems. Everyone here is in way over his or her head.
But the movie will now be an unlikely hit, which is worthwhile for the greater point but slightly ill-making given the quality of the thing itself. Rogen at least gets his film seen, and Sony has made its stand after ridiculous amounts of back-flipping and a spanking by the president of the United States. The nation’s multiplexes come out looking overly timid, and video-on-demand just got a big boost as a primary delivery mechanism for first-run movies (despite server overloads and screen freeze-ups that prove the technology may not be ready for prime time just yet.)
Still, the biggest losers have to be the hackers that exposed Sony’s inner workings and threatened American moviegoers, as well as the North Korean interests presumably behind them. Excellent work, ye stalwarts of the state: You’ve taken a movie that would have been forgotten in a week and put it right into the history books.