Every now and then, there comes along a movie that changes everything. These are typically known among scholars of cinema as “good” movies, or “interesting” movies, at the very least. Before ever being released in theaters, The Interview had sparked a new(!) conversation on free speech and censorship that certainly seemed to herald a great game-changer of a movie (starring James Franco and Seth Rogen, sure, but I will admit for all of us that we were more optimistic than usual). Everything about the movie’s road to release is now an important part of film history, from the Sony hack to the presidential reprimand that led to the movie’s sooner-than-anyone-expected digital distribution. We seem destined to talk about The Interview for a long while yet. Too bad, then, that it’s a boring piece of garbage.
At this point, we must set aside the political and cultural importance surrounding the movie’s existence. While this offscreen, meta-appeal of The Interview is all very neat, these conversations are already happening, and they are happening elsewhere. My goal here is to analyze this subpar comedy, which we have been forever cursed to remember, for what it is, and why we weren’t blessed with something much better instead.
Dave Skylark (James Franco) and Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen) are a talk show host and producer power duo who come into an opportunity to interview North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (Randall Park), as he is a fan of their show. Since the interview will be conducted at the supreme leader’s country palace, the CIA contacts Skylark to enlist his help in assassinating Kim Jong-un.
This is a good premise; it has a lot of potential energy. If you are unfamiliar with the term, potential energy is a form of energy in physics, stored in an object due to its position within a system. For instance, a book held above the ground has an amount of potential energy. When it is dropped, that potential energy is converted into kinetic energy. Comedy, perhaps more than any other genre, works on that same principle. A comedy’s premise, the story used to communicate that premise, and the scenes used to tell that story, all have a certain amount of potential energy which should ideally be converted into as many jokes as possible. The most emphatic problem with The Interview is that every level of its production is realized through disappointingly average means, squandering the promise of its premise and making something very regular out of something that was potentially special. The credits read like a hit list of people to blame.
Dan Sterling’s screenplay is chock full of words but light on jokes. It follows the basic rules of screenplay writing with setups and payoffs and a clean plot resolution, but it has no ambition. Jokes are belabored things, polluted with all types of extraneous language – inefficient wording, lazy references, and useless lines – which all add up to an undeserved runtime of one hour and 52 minutes. Stories with twists and turns involving dynamic characters can feel free to take up two hours or more, but if your whole plot is one joke, it does well to tell that joke before it goes stale. The screenplay is not without punchy humor, but the script is much more content with rambling filler instead. In the third act, Sterling tries to inject some true-facts drama about North Korea. It lands like a particularly shallow reading of the country’s Wikipedia entry and it is embarrassing.
Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s direction is devoid of style and caters to the worst habits of the movie’s stars. There is nothing to say about their method of direction. No characters are crafted from the actors and their instincts. No storytelling flair is applied to the screenplay. Granted, every character is written to be no deeper than they would be in a short sketch, but a director with any sort of unifying vision could still do something with that. Rogen and Goldberg, however, do nothing. The actors are left to their own devices and perform collections of antics, rather than characters. Here, Franco is the most “James Franco” I’ve ever seen and, considering his actual talent, it’s fucking unpalatable. Aside from enabling their friends to have fun at the expense of the audience, Rogen and Goldberg have nothing to add to the story or, worse, are of the exact same, unambitious stripe as Sterling and his limp words. They tell the story as a bunch of scenes that occur sequentially. That’s about it.
Now, none of this is absolutely damning, but it is lazy filmmaking, bad filmmaking, and depressingly expected of modern American comedies. There is no doubt that The Interview is the most culturally visible American comedy for years after everything that’s happened. It would be nice to be able to take pride in a movie that sent America and one mean Asian country into a curiously unique tizzy. Unfortunately, we just can’t. The Interview is not a good movie, and it shows. Now is the time to admit that the average American comedy is probably worse than the word “average” would indicate.
Earlier this year, editor Tony Zhou published an entry in his wonderful video essay series, “Every Frame a Painting,” on director Edgar Wright and his mastery of visual comedy. Zhou sets aside a section of the video to criticize modern American comedies for erasing the very purpose of putting comedy on film in the first place: to use the language of cinema itself as a way to tell more jokes instead of just delivering the ones already written on the page. Modern American comedies are “lightly edited improv” and it is easy to see Zhou’s argument that visual comedy is “moving backwards.” Just as weak writing and direction can deny the full release of a comedy’s potential energy, so too can lazy filmmaking.
Cinematographers and editors on American comedies are hired to build screenplay delivery systems that need only do the bare minimum to hold the audience’s attention. Scenes are shot for efficiency, only venturing as far as including a little bit of hollow visual interest. People stand around or sit around, trapped in the most basic sequence of cuts: the shot reverse shot. Here is a face. Here is another face. One face moves a bit in the wide. Cut back to a face. Here are some dynamic shots that don’t mean anything. Here is a montage cut to the rhythm of a recognizable piece of licensed music. Repeat.
The Interview is guilty of perpetuating all of these lazy habits and even finds a way to make one of them actively annoying. At some point, cinematographer Brandon Trost must have introduced Rogen and Goldberg to the idea of the dolly shot. As a result, the movie is overflowing with distracting lateral movement, in everything from wides to close-ups, turning the typically boring cinematography of these movies into an actual chore to watch. Camera movement equals visual interest, though, and I’m sure those rushes looked damn exciting before the dozens of similar sliding shots were placed one after the other in the final edit.
Modern pop American comedy films are lazy, artistically stagnant, and just as successful and dominant as they ever were, I’m sure. If the conversation about free speech and censorship in cinema must be had, may we only ever have to discuss the idea of The Interview instead of talking about the movie itself.
In 1940, Charlie Chaplin wrote and directed The Great Dictator, a farce that mercilessly poked fun at Hitler and the Nazis. After the end of World War II, Chaplin said this:
Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator, I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.
But despite his regrets and the problematic comedy, now tainted by the truths we know, The Great Dictator is still something. It has lasted as a work of art, a great satire, and an expression of passion. Now, to compare The Interview to The Great Dictator is unfair. The Interview is not trying to be The Great Dictator. But at the end of the day, even after excusing its flaws, The Interview is but a boring pile. When another great premise rolls around and when another great controversy tries to swallow it up, I hope that we have more to say upon watching the offending work than, “We could have done better.”
The Interview is available on demand and in select theaters.