“The Jazz Singer” ushered in the sound era so its title is enshrined in cinema history books forever. Have you ever looked at this turkey? It’s hokey Hollywood pablum circa 1927. The movie is only important for its historical impact, not any artistic merit.
“The Moon is Blue” is a mediocre (at best) Otto Preminger comedy that because it used phrases unacceptable to the tyrannical Moral Code of the Hays Office in 1953 — such as “virgin” and “seduction” — essentially began that censorship board’s long-sought demise.
“Easy Rider” will put you to sleep on DVD late at night, but it launched a youth fad in 1969 Hollywood where studios gave cameras virtually to anyone who could prove they were under 35 and never directed a movie before.
So now we come to the extremely peculiar case of “The Interview,” a film clearly destined to go down in history as a movie that launched an international incident and forced a studio to cancel a major release because the comedy upset a tin-pot dictator in an eighth-world country.
In a display of shocking corporate cowardice, the five largest American theater chains refuse to screen the Sony release, originally slated for Christmas Day, due to threats even the overly cautious Department of Homeland Security deemed not credible from anonymous hackers undoubtedly affiliated with North Korea. Its hand forced, Sony canceled the release of the film.
With its historical import insured, what about the movie itself? From this provocation should you not expect at least a provocative comedy?
Forget about it.
Like its aforementioned milestone predecessors, “The Interview” is pretty mediocre. As you watch “The Interview” though, you do get your hopes up for a while that Seth Rogen and co-conspirator Evan Goldberg have come up with a really cool comedy that mixes broad gags and juvenile hijinks with sharp satire.
Then the movie shows its true colors as the satire melts away amid surprisingly grotesque slapstick and a flaccid story structure.
With a target this huge, how did they miss so badly? North Korea is a rogue state with a cult of personality surrounding its “beloved” leader that might have been dreamed up by Gilbert & Sullivan in collaboration with the Three Stooges. It well deserves a few satiric bombs thrown its way.
Certainly the opening shot is very funny. A precious little girl sings a patriotic song to the multitudes assembled for the launch of a North Korean rocket.
As the camera pulls back and back to take in the scene, the Korean lyrics in subtitled translation take on increasingly strident and bloody wishes for the death of America and catastrophes to rain down on that evil land.
The film then takes you into the world of a noxious though popular celebrity tabloid TV show featuring the fatuous Dave Skylark (James Franco, perhaps a tad over the top but not implausibly so given the low bar such celeb hosts do achieve).
Yet his producer, Aaron Rapaport (Rogen), longs to do more legitimate news television, say along the lines of “60 Minutes.” The opportunity presents itself when they learn that North Korean despot Kim Jong-un is a fan of “Skylark Tonight.” Hey, why not score an interview with him? He’s a fan, right?
Well, by golly, that’s what goes down. Kim, through his spokeswoman Sook (Diana Bang), says yes. As the two men make arrangements to travel to Pyongyang, the CIA pays a visit. One of its more alluring agents, Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan), suggests the two men are in a perfect position to “take out” the dictator.
After the requisite hemming and hawing, they say yes.
The film’s art directors have fun with the grim monumentalism of the North Korean capital upon the two men’s arrival. Then Kim himself shows up. As played by Randall Park this may be the best comic impersonation of a sitting tyrant since Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.”
While alternating between childlike glee with all the toys, food and girls at his disposal as his country’s living God and morose despair that the world “misunderstands” him, Park is a perfect foil for these two men-children from American television.
The film reaches its comic highpoint as Kim and Dave, both recipients of different kinds of celebrity culture in their respective countries, bond over Katy Perry and basketball (perhaps a Dennis Rodman hangover?) as well as their mutual struggles with the weight of their fathers’ expectations.
But here the film, which Rogen co-wrote with Goldberg and Dan Sterling, has maneuvered itself into a corner. With an espionage/assassination subplot thanks to a provocative premise, the story becomes a little too serious to support the increasingly juvenile gags and butt-hole jokes.
The wheels come off at this point. The Interview goes ahead with Dave determined to ask questions not on the officially approved list. Meanwhile guerrilla warfare breaking out in the TV control booth as Rapaport and his surprising new love, Sook, struggle with engineers to keep the broadcast beaming live to an international audience when those embarrassing questions get asked.
No less than three fingers get bitten off in this struggle, which then escalates into civil war breaking out around the palace and Kim reaching for a button to launch a nuclear attack against America.
Okay, Stanley Kubrick got away with something akin to this — minus penis and rectum jokes, of course — in “Dr. Strangelove.” But Rogen and Goldberg, who also direct, aren’t aiming for such a lofty target. So the movie simply descends into a sloppy “SNL” skit.
Not that the college crowd and younger kids won’t get behind this movie. It’s just stupid enough that some things are funny. Sadly, it isn’t smart enough to realize that other things aren’t terribly funny and that an opportunity was lost here.
The characters were right and the subject even riper for a goofy satire about the crazed world we live in where a Kim Jong-un can be in competition with ISIS, Ebola and Bashar al-Assad as biggest bad-ass on the planet.
And where the cult of celebrity in America has gone haywire the way Paddy Chayefsky depicted broadcast news going haywire back in the “Network” days.
Alas, no such luck.
Opens: ??? (Columbia Pictures)
Production companies: Columbia Pictures, Point Grey
Cast: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park, Diana Bang, Timothy Simons
Directors: Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen
Screenwriter: Dan Sterling
Story by: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Dan Sterling
Producers: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, James Weaver
Executive producers: Dan Sterling, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, James Franco, Shawn Williamson, Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: Brandon Trost
Production designer: Jon Billington
Music: Henry Jackman
Costume designer: Carla Hetland
Editors: Zene Baker, Evan Henke
R rating, 112 minutes