Seth and James Meet Kim: "The Interview" ballsy and amusing enough but never as clever as it could be

The Interview (2014)
112 min., rated R.

Nothing screams Christmas more than a Seth Rogen-James Franco political comedy about assassinating North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un. Joking aside, "The Interview" ran the risk of going too far without much surprise and, thus, became the subject of such controversial blowback and threats by a terrorist group that committed cybersecurity hacking. In case you live under a rock, Sony Pictures pulled the movie from theaters, backing down and then deciding right before its initial December 25th nationwide release to open it in very select indie theaters and sell it to rent or buy online and Video On Demand platforms. Was it worth all the fuss? Not quite. Putting all of that aside, is it any good? It could have always been more clever, more subversive, and even more outrageous, but "The Interview" is a ballsy-enough goof, nothing more and nothing less, that packs on the guffaws like nuclear missiles.

Skylark Tonight producer Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen) and star Dave Skylark (James Franco) have hit their one-thousandth TV episode, but Aaron is tired of airing vapid celebrity gossip. When North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) makes the news for having the weapons to nuke the West coast of the United States, the producer secures a globally broadcast interview with the "master manipulator" who's also a superfan of Dave's show. His nation holds him as a god, who doesn't urinate or defecate and also takes care of his allegedly malnourished people. Before going off to North Korea, Aaron and Dave are dropped in on by Agents Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) Botwin (Reese Alexander), who on behalf of the C.I.A. ask the guys to take out Kim by lacing Dave's handshake with a poisonous strip. Before their interview, Dave and Kim Jong-un find a common thread and strike up a friendship. Can the two American friends go through with the mission?

"The Interview" has a one-joke premise, but co-directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (2013's "This Is the End") and screenwriter Dan Sterling mostly balance their standard brand of crass "dude humor" with outlandishly silly, go-for-broke lunacy, finger-biting and blood-spurting included. It's as ribald, juvenile and politically incorrect as one would expect. The biggest surprise might be the proficient production values, and cinematographer Brandon Trost (2014's "Neighbors") and editors Zene Baker and Evan Henke actually do some sharp shooting and cutting here. Calling it a biting satire would be inflating its quality and worth, but "The Interview" certainly has its moments of blazing bite. The film opens with a seemingly joyous anthem sung by a North Korean girl that praises the modern-day Hitler and blasts the United States ("We wish him joy, we wish him peace, we wish him love . . . and the one thing in our time, we wish more than this is for the United States to explode in a ball of fiery hell. They are arrogant and fat! May they drown in their own blood and feces!") before the testing of a missile launch. From there, the important, fear-mongering headline news announcing a possible threat is dichotomized by a Skylark Tonight interview with rapper Eninem. This satirical observation on celebrity journalism and the attempt to legitimize journalism is amusing and relevant, but if you want a sharper political satire or a send-up of bombastic action movies featuring Kim Jong-il as a puppet, revisit 2004's "Team America: World Police" from "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

Despite there being no history written for allegedly best friends Aaron and Dave, Seth Rogen and James Franco supply the film with their fast, energetic riffing and natural chemistry, as proven in "Pineapple Express" and "This Is the End." Playing the "Samwise" to Franco's "Frodo" or the straight man to his clown, Rogen is a thankfully grounded presence, while Franco broadly turns his squinting, noxiously smug shtick up to 11. Aaron is more of the voice of reason, even when he has to be the one to secure a package in his anus once staying in Kim's palace, and Dave is a buffoon open to ridicule (his mantra being, "They hate us 'cause they ain't us!"). The genuine standout, though, is Randall Park, who's inspiredly endearing and even a little sympathetic as Kim Jong-un, a rich 31-year-old kid who's felt incompetent his whole life and a closeted lover of Katy Perry and margaritas. As Dave tries convincing Aaron, "Kim is not evil; he was just born into a hard situation." Diana Bang, as Kim Jong-un's assistant Sook, and Lizzy Caplan, as sexy CIA Agent Lacey, aren't called on to do anything that stands out, aside from being sexual objects, but they're both pretty capable when it comes to working around a comedic line or situation.

With more qualifications to make audiences bust a stupid gut than to start an intelligent conversation, "The Interview" will go down in history for all the brouhaha it received rather than the film itself. Randall Park's interpretation of a murderous leader is a hoot before he bites the dust in a fiery, over-the-top "money shot" touchingly cued to Jenny Lane's acoustic cover of Katy Perry's "Firework." Aside from other jokes that work in the moment and then disappear like a drunken night, the film doesn't back down on sticking it to North Korea or even our own nation for vapid celebrity interviews being blown out of proportion for mass consumption. It may not be the year's funniest, but in the times that we're experiencing today when lives and creative freedom are both threatened, it's less of a mean-spirited assault and more of a lewd, harmlessly dumb crowd-pleaser, for better or for worse.

Grade: B -