Director:Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen
Starring: Seth Rogen, James Franco, Lizzy Caplan
Rating: 4 out of 5 missiles; a stupid-smart, or perhaps smartly stupid, satire. The film’s script (its broad approach to satirical humor) isn’t always the most intelligent, at least not on the surface (which doesn’t mean it isn’t funny, by the way). But lurking beneath James Franco’s obnoxiousness and between the usual, to-be-expected vulgarities, there is a gleefully offensive ridiculousness to this film that somehow gets its message across better than you’d think it would– if you’re receptive to it, that is. And, might I add, the film skewers not just North Korea, but also America. Its approach to making fun of the former is far more over-the-top than the latter, and so I think the fact that some nuance even exists here at all deserves a whole lot more credit than what the film is going to get.
And that, of course, is because the film is going to get notoriety instead, due to the controversy that has surrounded it for the last couple weeks, from the Sony hack itself to the ensuing fallout: theater chains pulling the film after threats of 9/11-esque attacks surfaced, then Sony pulling it entirely with no plans of distributing it, then Sony deciding to, thankfully, distribute the film after all via various VOD outlets (after much push back and criticism from Hollywood, the indie film world, and even President Obama).
And, as Rotten Tomatoes so eloquently put it in their current consensus for the film, all of that controversy will likely overshadow the film, its strengths and flaws alike. In fact, I’d go so far as to say many people who didn’t have an opinion about, or any interest in seeing the film were enticed to check it out, to see what the hubbub was all about. Then there were others who expressed that this was a whole lot of hubbub over what would probably be a dumb movie. I, for one, was always invested in this film, being a longtime mega-fan of Seth Rogen (and Evan Goldberg). And, like I said, despite the sometimes too low-brow, crude script with jokes that don’t always hit their marks perfectly, the film still works albeit as a smart satire masquerading as a stupid one: over-the-top and silly, yes, but the film is not actually as stupid as it would appear, or at least, it uses its stupidity to its extreme advantage in more cases than not, I’d say. I just fear that, controversy aside, its aura of stupidity will be what clouds the film’s unexpected brilliance for those who refuse to see that aura as a vehicle that enhances its satirical quality.
Of course, there’s not much more I need to say about the film’s plot or its politics, but I really liked this movie so I’ll ramble on anyway. The film follows James Franco’s Dave Skylark– a celebrity gossip reporter– and his trusty producer Aaron Rapaport (played by Seth Rogen, the straight man to Franco’s incompetent, insensitive goofball). They are given the rare opportunity to interview North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, which turns into a mission to kill him, or at least to make him seem human to his own people, who worship him as a god, of course.
The nuances I was referring to earlier with regard satirizing our own country’s policies and pomp come in a few different forms– the celebrity cameos and references surrounding Skylark’s show (Eminem is gay! Rob Lowe is bald! Miley Cyrus has camel-toe! Again– totally low-brow but undeniably humorous) and later, during the titular interview itself, the tables are turned momentarily, but just long enough for discerning viewers to stop and think about our own foreign and domestic policies. Another such fleeting moment is when Skylark, defending the outwardly awesome and misunderstood Kim Jong-un, says something along the lines of, what do we know anyway, we’re always sticking our nose into other countries’ business and messing everything up. I’m not saying the film had a responsibility to flesh these moments out more, heck if the hackers were domestic maybe that would make them just as upset. I just hope those moments are not overlooked totally– they are there, and they do matter.
But of course, Kim Jong-un is also depicted as a hilariously deceitful madman who likes basketball, margaritas, and Katy Perry’s “Firework” and who is burdened by his father’s legacy. I could see why, if North Korea had been the hackers (they’re denying involvement, last I heard), they’d be more than a little sensitive, since the interview itself is, in many ways, more humiliating than the original plan to assassinate him. But that’s why I think those brief moments of satire that point in both directions are so important even if they are more subtle. And maybe there’s something to be said for the film’s shenanigans that seem no different, comedically speaking, from any of Rogen or Franco’s other movies– I think it’s all intentional and, more or less, all effective.
I laughed more than once– sometimes hard– and found myself thinking too, but not for too long before the next gag came along and made me laugh again. I don’t think this kind of back and forth is a bad thing, necessarily. I don’t think the film even takes itself too seriously– all the more reason why the controversy was so fascinating to me in the first place. But if there’s anything we’ve learned from all this, it’s that we need comedy– in many forms, not just those that pride themselves on being cultured– in order to shed light on the state of our world. No matter how juvenile that light seems to be, it’s a light nonetheless, and if we dismiss those lights as such and say they aren’t worthy, or if we instead take them so seriously that we extinguish them out of fear, then the film industry– and our world at large– would be a very dark place indeed.