In order to enjoy any mainstream comedy these days, it almost feels as if you have to sign a waiver agreeing to accept a series of stale conventions as part of the price of admission. Like with Modern Family, you’re expected to sign off on the fact that it’s yet another documentary-style show, where the action is intercut with characters talking to an invisible crew, and confine your criticism only to the jokes and characters within that structure. With late night talk shows, you can critique the host’s monolog jokes, guest questions, charisma, even his haircut, but you can’t question why there’s still a white guy in a suit doing a monolog in front of a house band and a guest four nights a week. The Carson formula is sacrosanct! That is never allowed to change!
It’s gotten to be the same way with the Seth Rogen movie. People ask me if one is any good, and I feel like I’m expected to weigh in on the coloring, but never the lines. If I point out that I’m a little bored with comedies that have a heavy bromance element, a stylized drug scene, at least one winky celeb cameo, and almost every transition is in slow motion and set to hip hop party music, people will immediately turn on me and say, “WELL MAYBE YOU JUST DON’T ENJOY THOSE KINDS OF MOVIES!” as if I’ve violated the terms and conditions agreement. Thing is, there was a time when I happily accepted all those conditions. When, say, Superbad came out, I barely knew they were there. The less I understand the construction of a joke, the more I appreciate it. Don’t you get it? Jokes are magic and they are the only thing that give meaning to a meaningless universe for me. If I can sense the underlying math, it’s incredibly disheartening.
I guess this is a long way of saying that I mostly enjoyed The Interview, but these Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg movies are starting to feel like model airplanes. The Interview is a perfectly fine model airplane, but it’d be much better if they’d dropped or at least tried to update the elements that make it feel like it was built using an instruction manual. Commerce tends to favor those creators who can build up their own style guide and then pump out a hundred products based on it, but the stage when they’re creating that guide always seems more interesting. The Interview feels decidedly like it came from the mass production stage, and that the Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg style guide was already finished a movie or three ago.
That’s not to say The Interview‘s premise isn’t inspired. Seth Rogen plays a producer for an Entertainment Tonight-style show called Skylark Tonight, hosted by the Ryan Seacrest-esque Dave Skylark, played by James Franco, who specializes in catchphrases and getting celebrities to open up about being bald, gay, visibly be-cameltoe’d, etc. Seth Rogen’s character is feeling disrespected by his more “serious” journalism school peers, and when he finds out Kim Jong-Un is a Skylark Tonight superfan, an interview immediately becomes their opportunity to do something respectable.
It’s a solid premise, with room for surprisingly insightful comedy based on entertainment journalism, the North Korean regime, and US foreign meddling, but there’s also a vestigial “comically homoerotic” element to Rogen/Franco’s relationship that really does nothing for the plot and just feels like something they did because that’s a required element of a Rogen comedy. (Ditto a “doin’ drugs” scene). It’s easy to forget that the more overt bromance relationship had a satirical edge when we saw it in Superbad, lampooning something that had been unspoken in so many previous “two dudes” comedies. Now it’s here because… I don’t know why it’s here. It doesn’t fit with The Interview‘s send up of entertainment media and doesn’t bring much to the table other than quenching a thirst for familiarity.
It’s hard to buy laidback James Franco, so brilliant in stonery roles, as the extroverted, type-A moron at first, the Anne Hathaway to Seth Rogen’s James Franco, if you will, and I wondered if this was just the wrong role for him. Also, this is neither here nor there, but it was hard for me to focus on anything but Franco’s freakishly tiny eyeballs. They’re just little black dots, he looks like a human Far Side cartoon sometimes. In any case, Franco, and just about everything in the movie, starts to make a lot more sense when played off Randall Park as Kim Jong-Un. Park already proved adept at a subtler kind of comedy in Veep, but here he manages both broad hamminess and subtle nuance with aplomb. Suddenly Kim and Skylark are just two dudes desperate to please their dads, and their relationship, along with a running joke about Katy Perry’s “Firework,” is ultimately what makes the movie work.
Sure, there are the expected jokes about dog-eating and buttholes, and way too many scenes that look like a cool rap video, but the Dan Sterling script is surprisingly self-aware in its critique of North Korea. When Skylark gets in Kim Jong-Un’s face about his starving people and labor camps, Jong-Un fires back with critiques of the US’s own massive incarceration rate and its hypocritical attitude towards nuclear weapons. But neither is it presented in a moral relativist, “see, everyone has their faults” kind of way. That’s a tough balancing act to manage, and I’m sure The Interview will take criticism from both the “this is culturally insensitive!” and “this gives North Korea a free pass!” camps regardless. The Interview is neither, and that’s the best thing about it. Anyone who thinks that you can’t do a serious critique of a political system through a silly caricature of its leader has never seen The Great Dictator.
The worst thing about it, meanwhile, is all the slow motion and gay jokes. People act as if comedy is this separate universe where formula is above reproach and the ratio of setup/punchline is the only thing that matters. But comedy, like everything else, starts to die when you stop expanding the form. Almost every sitcom and late night show these days feels like it’s content to confine its creativity to these pre-fab structures, but the best stuff never is. The good stuff makes you forget structure.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.