Review: James Franco and Seth Rogen anchor the violently funny ‘The Interview’

“The Interview” should not exist.

One of the things I find most interesting about the careers of comic actors is the way they make choices as their career gets into the ten or twenty or fifty year range. Comic performers have to evolve and grow over time if they hope to keep the audience engaged. In some cases, they keep distilling their essential identity until they are left with something that is almost reflexive, like Bill Murray, for example. In other cases, they just start shaking it up, throwing everything at the wall just to see what sticks.

Seth Rogen is still, relatively speaking, a young performer. Sure, he's been working since “Freaks and Geeks,” but as a movie star, we're still talking about someone who hasn't reached the ten year mark. “Knocked Up” was 2007, and I still remember the conversations on the set of that film, where Judd Apatow was convinced that Rogen could carry a movie, even if the studio was still not sure.

Considering that was only seven years ago, Rogen has covered a surprising amount of ground. He's been able to make a fairly broad range of types of films, and he's played the game fairly well. While “The Green Hornet” didn't completely work, I still think he and Evan Goldberg, his writing/producing/directing partner, did the best job they could while also pleasing the studio. That was a next to impossible gig for anyone, and if anything, it was a valuable experience because it seems to have pushed Rogen and Goldberg to realize that they don't want to spend their time and energy making someone else's movie.

It is safe to say, then, that no one else would have made “The Interview,” and that one of the things that makes Rogen and Goldberg special is that they like their comedy to leave a mark. As in “This Is The End,” this is comedy with a body count, and when things get rough, they get very, very rough. Blood and tears will be spilled before the end of the film, and that's just the way Rogen and Goldberg like it. There is plenty of comedy to be mined from the extreme, and they seem happy to be the ones doing it. And if they happen to infuriate an actual seated world leader? Well, even better.

“The Interview” hits the ground running. We quickly get to know Dave Skylark (James Franco) and his producer Aaron Rapoport (Rogen) and the show they produce together. “Skylark Tonight” is pure celebrity hokum, and when one particular interview uncovers some shocking news, it is a reminder to Aaron that he wants to produce real news. He wants their show to meek something, to be respected. When Dave learns that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is a big fan of the show, an idea is hatched. They inquire discretely and are finally able to make contact, and sure enough, the opportunity is presented to them: they can fly to North Korea and, for the first time ever, sit with him for a private televised interview.

Oh, and while they're there, the CIA would like them to kill Kim Jong-un. No big deal.

When Matt Stone and Trey Parker made fun of Kim Jong-il in “Team America: World Police,” he basically stole that movie. The same is true here. I like watching Franco and Rogen together. I think Franco's joy in playing scenes with Rogen is clearly evident any time the two of them work together. Franco always seems like he's at his loosest and his most playful when he's in a scene with Seth, and that's definitely true here. Randall Park plays Kim Jong-un, and it's a pretty tremendous comic performance. Because Jong-un is a master manipulator, you're never quite sure what's sincere and what's not when he's talking, and the nuance of the performance would be tricky for even the most experienced performer. Rogen, who is as close to a straight man as you'll get in this film, once again proves to be a solid anchor allowing the supporting cast to go as far to the extreme as they want.

There is definitely something taboo about the humor here. After all, this is no fictional Bond villain, and the way Kim Jong-un treats the people of his country is no joke. Making a movie about killing the currently seated head of a real country, especially one that already hates us ideologically as much as North Korea does, is not something to be done lightly. I can't imagine how our media would react if there was a film from North Korea all about a group of people trying to assassinate President Obama. The responses would be immediate and hyperbolic. But the thing is, no one in North Korea would ever be allowed to make a film like “The Interview,” raucous and cheerful and delightfully violent. The bigger problem would be that President Obama is not nearly as eccentric or rich a character as Kim Jong-un.

On a technical level, the film is very slick. Goldberg and Rogen are strong directors when it comes to staging a scene or creating comic mayhem, and they're well served once again by Brandon Trost's photography. Dan Sterling's script, based on a story he co-wrote with Goldberg and Rogen, is efficient at setting up situations and then letting them play out, and it gives everyone room to play, not just the two leads.

By now, it's become clear that the overriding theme of the work that Rogen and Goldberg are doing is friendship and the various ways this world tests and challenges that. You can look at the surface of something like “The Interview” or “This Is The End” or “Superbad” or “Pineapple Express” and just see the differences between those films, or you can dig into them and see how, essentially, the guys are just working variations on a theme. And why not? Look how much gold they've already mined, and “The Interview” would seem to indicate there's plenty more where that came from.

Part of me wishes I could hit fast-forward, just so I could peek and see what Rogen and Goldberg are doing ten years from now or twenty or even forty. But honestly, I don't want to miss each of the steps along the way. “The Interview” is laugh out loud funny all the way through, and once again proves that Rogen and Goldberg will do anything, no matter how dark, for a big laugh, and that character is just as important as punchlines in their work.

“The Interview” opens everywhere on Christmas Day.