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The Interview


First it was just another stoner comedy. Then it was the international provocation that inspired North Korea to hack Sony. Then we weren't going to be able to see it, ever. Then it was our patriotic duty to see it. Then people saw it and discovered that it was, in fact, basically just another stoner comedy. Then it landed on four spots on the Razzies shortlist, including Worst Picture.

What's left to say about The Interview? First, this second directorial effort from Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg is a flawed one that still delivers some laughs, provided you enjoy its brand of hyperverbal, half-improvised comedy. Second, its main satirical target isn't Kim Jong-un, but the all-American struggle between news reporting and infotainment.

Dan Sterling, who scripted based on Rogen and Goldberg's story, is a past executive producer of "The Daily Show," and his screenplay recalls Jon Stewart's oft-expressed ambivalence about crafting gags that double as a primary news source for disaffected viewers. Here, that ambivalence shades into self-hatred, because protagonist Aaron Rapaport (Rogen) is a true sell-out. He's a trained journalist who produces a lowest-common-denominator celebrity talk show hosted by a preening, witless egomaniac named Dave Skylark (James Franco).

Unlike Stewart, Skylark wouldn't know a genuine news story if it bit him on the ass of his designer jeans. But when he discovers that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) is a huge fan of his show, he's eager to set up a ratings-grabbing interview.

Reputable journalists sniff with disgust at Skylark's plan to go to Kim's homeland for a controlled, scripted encounter, while the CIA smells an opportunity. Soon Aaron and Dave have been enlisted by a sexy agent (Lizzy Caplan) in a plot to assassinate Kim. There are just two problems: the pair's general incompetence, and the budding bromance between Dave and his target. The TV peacock and the lonely dictator turn out to share a taste for Soviet tanks, babes and the songcraft of Katy Perry.

Ridicule has undeniable power, and thinkers have been arguing for centuries about the political clout of comedy. So when The Interview asks us to entertain the possibility that assassinating Kim Jong-un might be less effective than demonstrating to his people that he "has a butthole" — that's dumb humor, all right. But it also follows a long cultural precedent of using schoolyard scatological jeers to bring down the mighty.

So the problem with The Interview isn't that its humor is lewd, crude and just plain silly. It's that Rogen and Franco don't know when to stop riffing, mugging and killing decent jokes with repetition. While the former has written himself into the role of a straight man, the latter goes so broad that he could be auditioning for a Dumb and Dumber sequel. (Luckily, Park's performance as Kim is much subtler and funnier.)

There's something both naïve and endearing about a fictive scenario in which a fatuous idiot like Dave Skylark does what diplomats, generals and spies could not. (It's worth noting that he leaves most of the hard work to smarter characters, including a North Korean played by Diana Bang.) But that tall tale pales in comparison with the history of The Interview itself. The movie is a well-meaning piece of foolishness whose insights, while real, never quite justify the climactic scene that purportedly provoked all this trouble.

Or did it? Some cybersecurity experts have raised doubts about whether the disastrous Sony hack was actually inspired by the film's baiting of North Korea or by a smaller, domestic grievance. Sure, it's all speculation. But if disgruntled former employees of a megacorporation inadvertently turned one of its middling entertainment products into an international cause célèbre, that would be an absurdist farce for the ages.