31 December 2014

The Perils of Political Filmmaking: "The Interview" Review

James Franco and Seth Rogan as Dave Skylark and Aaron Rapoport
Photo by Ed Araquel, courtesy of Columbia Pictures
There's a serious subject matter at hand in "The Interview--" a subject matter that the film doesn't seem to take seriously. It's a Western film attempting to satirize the internal horrors of North Korea and its leader Kim Jong-Un but that satire, for the most part, is absent.  Instead, "The Interview" is another Seth Rogan/James Franco romp but even then the film just isn't very comedic. There's nothing funny about the very real mass starvation, poverty, and political corruption in North Korea. The problem isn't that the subject matter is taboo but that "The Interview" fails to properly make fun of while also critiquing the politics of North Korea. North Korea, then, and by extension its citizens, seem to be the butt of a distasteful Western joke.

Mirroring a shot/counter-shot, the film's first two scenes create a political dialogue with one another. The opening depicts a North Korean concert where its star performer--a little girl--sings a song with purposeful absurd lyrics which attack the United States. Director Evan Goldberg's technique is similar to Sergei Eisenstein's in "Battleship Potemkin--" a different type of political film but one where it's camera techniques also highlight its subject matter. The camera first places its focus on the little girl singing and there's a surprise element to the scene. The song itself doesn't start off absurd, only simply praising Kim Jong-Un, but as the camera begins to pull back, the lyrics change into a political attack: "...Is for the United States to explode in a ball of fiery hell/May they be forced to starve and beg and be ravaged by disease." It is here that the camera then reveals a mass crowd of North Korean citizens at the concert and it's this use of filming a mass crowd, within a political film, that gives the scene its Eisenstein-like quality. Like in "Battleship Potemkin," the North Korean mass is used to connote a homogenized political group and way of thinking. Kim Jong-Un's beliefs are not simply his own but are reflected upon the entire country and for citizens of the United States, it's a terrifying reality that an entire country may be devoid of free-thought and speech--an ideal and practice that's common in a country such as the United States, where people are free to not only disagree with the president but do so in public without having to risk their lives.

In the following scene we're then introduced to Dave Skylark (James Franco) and Aaron Rapoport, (Seth Rogan) who together run a successful celebrity interview talk-show called Skylark Tonight. The celebrities that appear are played by their real-life counterparts further adding to the film's realism by not only having North Korea and its leader named but also the celebrities that appear on Skylark Tonight. But because the "The Interview" is distasteful in its satire that very realism, at times, works against the film itself. Skylark's guest for this particular scene is Eminem (Marshal Mathers). Eminem himself has drawn controversy over the years for his misogynistic lyrics which happens to be the topic for Skylark's interview. In asking why Eminem sings about women the way he does, the artist reveals that it's because he's scared of them and that singing for him, is a way to express this fear. It's those lines that then connect this scene with the first one. Screenwriters Seth Rogan and Dan Sterling  seem to be pointing towards a facade maintained by North Korea through its outward hatred for the United States. The concert at the start of the film then becomes a way for North Korea to express its fear against the U.S.--a fear that's rooted in understandable rationalism given the United States' military strength.

These first few minutes, however, are as about as deep as the film ever gets in its satire, before it begins to devolve into a series of crude humor that we haven't already seen in "Neighbors," "This is the End," or any of the other films that the duo have worked on. Franco plays Skylark with a blind absurdity for "what matters." Skylark's life is one characterized by drugs, women, and his interview show yet the character has no qualms with any of this. It's only when Rapoport begins to vie for something more, that the character begins to change thus opening the film's second satirical channel. If "The Interview" is a reflection of reality in its satire then Skylark Tonight is supposed to be the "fast-culture" of our own world. It's obsession with celebrities mirrors that of channels such as MTV or E!, and it's this type of fast-culture that Rapoport wants to move away from, in order to be taken seriously. There's a didacticism which inwardly points at the citizens of the United States, making fun of their wont and consumerism for this type of culture.

Seth Rogan plays a character that's the polar opposite of Franco's in attitude. Both live lives of debauchery but its Rapoport first that begins to want more than the life he soon views as vapid. Where Franco brings an impressive acting ability to his own character, one which breaks away from the type-casting the two have made themselves, Rogan does not. Scenes with Skylark turn out to be the most humorous for Franco's extreme portrayal of the character, one which borders the line of irony and realism whereas scenes with Rogan continue to churn out comedic material that we've already seen in the actor's career.

There's few laughs to be had in "The Interview." The film's best punch-lines don't arrive from its witty political-satire but rather the potty-humor that the team behind the film are known for. This leads "The Interview" to become just another Seth Rogan/James Franco film except this time, under the guise of a political-satire. Even as another film in the same vein as their other works, however, "The Interview" falls low on the comedic bar. Mired in its extreme media controversy, there's nothing too extreme in the film's politics at all but rather it becomes very forgettable outside, where the story around the film is much more interesting than the film itself.