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How’s this for a crazy idea for a movie: a bunch of filmmaking buddies who are primarily known for silly and/or stoner-related comedies make a big-budget, goofy comedy about a rather ludicrous plot to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, which actually leads to a real international incident involving cyber terrorism against a major corporation, threats of terrorist violence against movie theaters and calls for all-out declarations of war. The whole thing is, admittedly, far-fetched but we’ve been asked to take larger leaps of faith in the world of cinema, right? Sounds like the kind of thing that would be perfect for someone like, say, Seth Rogen or James Franco to tackle, doesn’t it?

Unless you spent the last few months in a complete and total media blackout, it would be pretty impossible not to know that this is, of course, exactly what ended up taking place, despite how outlandish and bizarre the whole thing seems. The film in question, of course, is Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s The Interview (2014). The very notion of the film’s existence would end up vexing North Korea so much, apparently, that they hacked into Sony Corporation’s computer systems, disseminated oodles of private, corporate information online and even went so far as to threaten physical violence against any theaters that deigned to screen the film. After theater chains folded to the threats, Sony pulled the film from release, only to reverse position and allow a few theaters to screen it, as originally planned, on Christmas Day, along with releasing the film online via streaming agencies.  Almost instantly, The Interview would enter the history books, if only because the situation surrounding the film was unheard of in the past: we’ve truly entered a “brave new world,” as it were, and The Interview appears to be leading the charge.

For all of the controversy surrounding its release, however, controversy which all but assures the film a certain “must-see” factor, there are still some pretty basic questions to ask, not the least of which is, “Is The Interview actually any good?” While any film would be hard-pressed to live up to this kind of hype (after all, how many films have “almost” started World War 2.5?), I actually found The Interview to be quite good: in fact, I actually liked it more than any of the group’s previous work, including Pineapple Express (2008) and This is the End (2013). When the film is good, it’s actually pretty hilarious and strangely heartfelt, in equal doses: when it’s just okay, it’s still entertaining, albeit in a rather dumb, goofy way.

Dave Skylark (James Franco), the vapid host of one of those anonymous celebrity gossip shows that seem to choke the airwaves, ends up scoring the ultimate interview when an off-the-cuff request to North Korean President Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) is answered in the affirmative:  turns out that the dictator is a huge fan of Skylark’s show and jumps at the chance for his hero to fly out and interview him for the whole world to see. After Skylark’s put-upon producer/best friend Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen) gets everything set-up, the duo are approached by CIA agents Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) and Botwin (Reese Alexander): turns out that the U.S. government sees Skylark’s exclusive interview as the perfect cover for an assassination attempt against Jong-un and they want the dopey egotist to do his “civic duty” and kill the dictator.

As can be expected, much hilarity ensues as Skylark and Rapaport are put through secretive CIA training before being dispatched to North Korea. Once there, however, Skylark and Kim Jong-un strike up an unexpectedly potent bromance (they really bond over their shared affinity for Katy Perry’s “Firework”) which threatens to derail the assassination attempt. Will poor Aaron be able to get everything back on track or has his buddy thrown a King Kong-sized monkey-wrench into the works? Will Dave realize the error of his ways in time to save the mission? And how, exactly, did they teach that tiger to use night-vision goggles?

Full disclosure: I’ve never been the biggest fan of Rogen and Franco’s brand of comedy. I really enjoyed This is the End, possibly because their take on a horror scenario was genuinely interesting, but I have a real “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude to most of their films. That being said, I found myself enjoying The Interview much more than I thought I would: at times, I actually kind of loved the film, to be honest, albeit not unconditionally.

For one thing, the film is genuinely funny: from the dialogue to certain rather elaborate set-pieces, The Interview made me laugh out loud more often than I think I ever had at a Rogen/Franco film, including This is the End. The scene involving Rogen and the tiger is a minor classic, as is pretty much any moment where Franco is allowed to run roughshod over the material: when he’s “all-in” here, he’s pretty much unstoppable, which goes a long way towards selling the humor. I was actually quite taken with Rogen and Franco’s chemistry in the film, finding them to be a nearly perfect comic duo, ala Abbott and Costello or Hope and Crosby. We’re asked to believe that Aaron would keep putting up with Dave’s bullshit due to their lifelong friendship and it actually works: Rogen and Franco sell the friendship so perfectly (and sweetly, might I add) that it really adds heft to the rest of the film.

Far from existing in a vacuum, however, the leads are given more than capable assistance by a pretty stellar supporting cast: Caplan is great as the CIA agent who’s in constant awe of the duo’s ability to screw things up and Randall Park is absolutely fantastic as Kim Jong-un. Park, in particular, is able to find a rare amount of genuine warmth and empathy in a character that could have just been a cardboard-cutout villain: for a time, Park’s Jong-un is a genuinely likable character and it’s not hard to see how the gullible Skylark could get taken in. Park handles the transition from “reasonable” to “batshit-crazy” with aplomb, handily turning the President into the kind of Bond villain that The Interview’s over-the-top finale demands.

One thing that actually surprised me about The Interview was how exceptionally well-made it is: from the very first shot (a gorgeous scene involving a young North Korean girl singing an anti-American song before a huge audience) to the truly epic finale (the single best use of “Firework” that anyone could imagine, ever), there’s nothing about the film that feels slap-dash or “small.” The cinematography, by frequent collaborator Brandon Trost, is always colorful and expertly staged and the film has one of the best, most effective soundtracks I’ve heard in some time. In every way, The Interview has been fashioned as a “big” film, which makes its debut on VOD even more disheartening: subject-matter and controversy notwithstanding, The Interview definitely deserved to be seen on a big screen.

Another thing that surprised me about The Interview was how intelligent the film actually is: despite a preponderance of low-brow humor (dick jokes abound), The Interview actually makes lots of savvy points, not all of which are aimed directly at North Korea. In fact, U.S. foreign policy and the world’s addiction to celebrity are just as often skewered and some of the observations are spot-on (particularly smart is the bit where Diana Bang’s Sook discusses how the U.S. doesn’t have the best track-record when it comes to assassinating foreign leaders). It would have been the easiest thing in the world for co-writer-directors Rogen and Goldberg to take endless potshots at North Korea and its leader but they manage to spread the joy around, as it were, which gives the proceedings a bit more of an open-mind than they might otherwise have had.

Ultimately, I ending up being quite impressed with The Interview: topical, rather fearless and genuinely funny, the film is also surprisingly dark and violent (the scene where one character gets his fingers bitten off is played for laughs, despite the rather nightmarish details and there’s an on-screen suicide that actually made me jump), finding a nice balance between the disparate elements. When The Interview worked, I found it quite delightful, certainly more-so than any Franco/Rogen vehicle before it. Suffice to say, I’m actually looking forward to the pair’s next outing, although I doubt that it’ll have the “world-changing” potential of this one.

Will The Interview change the world? Probably not, although that would be the ultimate case of art influencing life, wouldn’t it? Is The Interview a sturdy, funny and appropriately cutting action-comedy full of goofy humor and some truly outrageous setpieces? You better believe it. In the end, isn’t that the only thing that we can (realistically) hope for?

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