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The Interview wants to be a brutal satire of North Korea and the media. Don't fall for it.

James Franco and Seth Rogen play bumbling idiots who wander into an international situation in The Interview.
James Franco and Seth Rogen play bumbling idiots who wander into an international situation in The Interview.
Sony Pictures
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Even the film's most ardent champions would likely concede that The Interview is a spectacularly weird film to end up at the center of a free speech brouhaha. The movie is more or less a typical big studio bromantic comedy, just the latest installment in the ongoing tales of Seth Rogen and James Franco.

Normally, I enjoy these two, but The Interview is the weakest film to prominently feature them, and the least funny. It has some things going for it. Dan Sterling's screenplay, for instance, is smartly structured, giving at least the suggestion of character arcs to the characters both Rogen and Franco play, as well as Randall Park's version of real life North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

But the movie overall is decidedly mediocre and bulky, the kind of take-it-or-leave-it smorgasbord too many mainstream comedies have become nowadays. Every gag, no, every scene goes on at least a few beats too long, a problem that afflicts so many comedies nowadays.

Its story of two American journalists tasked with assassinating Kim while interviewing him for a dumb infotainment show seems outwardly offensive in its premise, but once you get into it, it's really quite tame. It's the full-length movie equivalent of shouting politically incorrect terms on 4chan. You're often just saying them to get a rise out of people. You don't really mean them.

Indeed, presuming North Korea really was behind the hack of Sony, the studio that made it, the movie doesn't really seem worth the effort. In fact, arguably the most sympathetic character in the thing is Kim Jong Un himself.

See, deep down, this is yet another 2014 movie about the anxiety of the white, heterosexual American male. On some level, co-directors Rogen and Evan Goldberg know that these guys are buffoons and are taking the piss out of the self-important journalism movie. The mockery of Frost/Nixon, for instance, runs thick in The Interview.

But on another level, this is just the latest tale starring Rogen and Franco about the virtues of not giving a shit. And that's something largely afforded, still, to white guys living in the West.

The Interview

Randall Park plays Kim Jong Un (center) in The Interview. (Sony Pictures)

How the film handles North Korea

In a smart piece, my Verge colleague Emily Yoshida argues that the film trivializes the ongoing human rights calamities in North Korea. Similarly, Vox's own Max Fisher has argued that the portrayal of North Korea in both the film and the arguments around the film plays into Kim's hands.

Indeed, the film backs Fisher up in several surprising ways, considering that its climax centers on Kim's plan to demolish the US Pacific Coast with nuclear weapons, something that seems rather unlikely in reality.

I would not go as far as either of my colleagues. The film does care, at least a little bit, about the struggles of the North Korean people. The climactic interview between Franco's character, dumb-ass host Dave Skylark, and Kim features a pivotal moment when it seems as if Skylark has bought into North Korean propaganda, only to pivot immediately to pressing Kim on why he doesn't feed his people. This is not exactly the stuff of hard-hitting satire, but it's aware of the world around it, at least. Yet the problems here are far, far more pernicious than either of my colleagues suggested.

The film has been compared frequently (including by myself) to Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, which took a satirical smack at Adolf Hitler a year before the US even entered World War II, at a time when Hollywood was too often reluctant to press back against Nazism for fear of alienating German customers. But Chaplin was smart enough to realize he wasn't going to solve the Hitler problem in a comedy, no matter how much of a genius he was. The Great Dictator is a superb act of mockery and goofiness, yes, but it's also a movie that dared the viewers of its time to view the German dictator for who he truly was.

The Interview, on the other hand, is a movie that, largely inadvertently, creates the sense that it's just fine to ignore the problems of North Korea. It might even be preferable. The state of the characters in this film is one of blissful ignorance. Skylark is a completely oblivious man-child idiot, while Aaron Rappaport (Rogen's character) knows there's a larger world out there but would much rather continue bumbling through his life in true "Seth Rogen character" fashion.

See, the character arcs of both characters are about trying to be taken seriously as journalists, even though the program Skylark hosts seems a rung or two below Entertainment Tonight on the journalism food chain. But, importantly, they want to be taken seriously as journalists on their own terms, which means that they can care about North Korea for as long as they need to and as long as it brings them personal glory, then immediately drop it once they're back on American soil. They don't want to question Kim on his merits. No, they want to make him cry and shit himself on live television, broadcast around the world. Then they want to blow him up with a tank.

This is exactly what they do, and it closes off the story with North Korea open to revolution and democratic elections. Kim becomes not a real-world problem, but a fictional one, a video game villain. We no longer need to worry about him in our reality, because Skylark and Rappaport have "solved" him in theirs. If Chaplin opened troubling questions about the world of 1940, Rogen and Goldberg are only too happy to close theirs off with a Katy Perry song.

The Interview

Diana Bang plays Sook, the woman who's actually responsible for the revolution. (Sony Pictures)

Other levels of satire

To be sure, it's possible there's some meta-textual level of satire I'm not seeing here. It's entirely possible the true laughs in this film are directed right back at the overconfident Americans, who are mostly just dumb dudebros who stumble into a James Bondian situation they're unprepared for. It's possible the film is mocking its audience for how little it knows or cares about North Korea, rather than celebrating that very tendency.

Indeed, the film actually shares a structure with the modern online outrage machine. A serious issue is brought up in a way that's unnecessarily reductive. Seemingly serious people say seemingly serious things about it. And then the story comes to a faux "resolution" that invites those only casually following along to move on to the next thing. But whatever spurred the outrage in the first place is too deeply buried to ever really be rooted out by online activism.

Sterling's script seems at least marginally aware of this, and the film's sharpest moments are when it contrasts the deep silliness of its premise with the real-world problems it reflects. These moments are the few when the film has any bite.

But the movie ultimately loses sight of that bite because it turns into a movie about validating Skylark and Rappaport, about giving them the feel-good narrative arc all mainstream movies must have. If the latter portions of the second act (when Skylark is getting dangerously close to Kim and all hope seems lost) truly engage with the thorniness of what the film wrestles with, the third act sells all of that out to avoid challenging the audience in any way, shape, or form. The happy ending arrives. The good guys get career validation and the poorly developed female supporting characters. Kim dies.

There's a line in this third act that stood out to me. In it, the two men look upon the elections North Korea is holding, and one of them remarks that this freedom was the result of a revolution they kicked off. And that's sort of true, in that Skylark's interview exposed Kim as someone who lacked omnipotence, thus encouraging his people to rise up against him (also helped by Kim dying when his helicopter is shot down by a tank), but it also ignores that the true mastermind of the plot was North Korean propagandist Sook (Diana Bang), who used Skylark and Rappaport to her own ends to bring her country the freedom she thought it needed.

Again, I'd say I found this a deliciously dark bit of satire on American self-importance if I thought the film was even slightly aware of it. But the film seems completely oblivious to it. Skylark and Rappaport are our white-guy American heroes, and they must be rewarded. To not do so cuts against everything we've been taught by the movies to expect.

The ultimate failure of The Interview isn't in that it makes North Korea a boring problem for someone else to worry about. The ultimate failure is that it doesn't dare to suggest to its audience that a movie should ever challenge them on any level whatsoever.