Dave Skylark (James Franco) and his producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen), who run the popular celebrity tabloid TV show "Skylark Tonight", find out that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is a fan of the show. To further their careers, they travel to Pyongyang to conduct an interview with him. But their plans change when the CIA recruits them to assassinate Kim Jong-un.
I’m one of only four film critics I know who’ve been to North Korea. I went there with my wife for our honeymoon, in December 2011. (This wasn’t perversity for its own sake: she’s a scholar, specialising in the language and culture of the Korean peninsula.) It was by some distance the most surreal place I’ve ever visited—and I once spent almost a week in Jerusalem, where, in the space of a single, magical day, I got smacked in the face by the butt of an Israeli soldier’s rifle (we’d had a frank exchange about the Wall in Ramallah), had a fourteen-year-old Palestinian boy make a pass at me on a bus, and felt a bomb go off across the road from my hotel. Compared to the Hermit Kingdom, however, this felt like a long weekend in Caloundra.
I have to say, we didn’t laugh much—or at least, not until we caught the train to the Chinese border, where our train stopped for more than two hours while a cadre of DPRK soldiers pawed through our bags and half-heartedly inspected our photographs, just as we’d been warned they would. One of these gentlemen, more aggressive than the rest, appeared in our compartment and demanded our passports. Then, though he had the evidence in his hand, he demanded we also state our nationalities. There were four of us in the carriage: Vanessa and I, both Australian; a Canadian man—and a British solicitor, Simon, whose bone-dry wit we’d come to rely upon in the preceding days, and a moment’s awkward silence ensued while we all waited for each other to reply. The North Korean soldier, alas, was not a patient man. ‘NATIONALITY!’ he screamed. ‘British,’ said Simon calmly. And then, with immaculate sang froid, he purred, ‘. . . And you?’
"an indifferent, grimly unfunny little caper"
That was funny—I still crack up, remembering the perfection of his delivery, the pinpoint precision of his timing: Noel Coward couldn’t have done better. But it was funny in a you-had-to-be-there way. You had to have gone through the long days of biting your tongue until you tasted blood. Had to have glimpsed the hundreds of North Koreans walking at sunset across railway tracks on their way home, their shoulders slumped, their heads bowed with fatigue, as powerful a visual as any set-piece from Angelopoulos or Jancsó—or seen them packed tight as sardines in an absolutely dark passenger bus as it crawled through Pyongyang’s unnervingly traffic-free streets. Had to have driven past silent rows of apartments where, at ground level, you saw the same two portraits—Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il—in every dismal room, above every doorway, in exactly the same place, home after home, block after block. Had to have endured the ‘VIP’ dinner by candlelight in an otherwise-deserted ‘grand’ hotel (because the electricity in this particular town, some distance north-west of Pyongyang, had run out), and looked down part-way through, when the lights flickered briefly to life again, to see the dark specks crawling at the bottom of your rice bowl. Had to remember, above all, that you were the lucky ones: you were leaving in a few days’ time.
I guess I’m saying that, comedy-wise, it’s kind of a tough room to play. But not impossible: Team America: World Police—starring, let’s not forget, a weirdly convincing simulacrum of the late Dear Leader—is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. And for the record, I don’t think anything’s off-limits per se. (My wife and I once laughed at a dying-child joke in a Sarah Silverman stand-up set that made the rest of the room gasp. Clearly, we will go to hell one day.) The question is, what do you bring to the table? How good—how sharp, how original—are your jokes? And, as the Charlie Hebdo incident last week established, how prepared are you for the blowback?
In this case, the answer to both questions is: not very. Sony were comprehensively and embarrassingly wrong-footed by hackers—who may or may not have been North Korean, and may or may not have been avenging the decision to green-light the movie—and were forced to backtrack and kowtow: first the film would not open in theatres... then it would, but only a few... then it would screen primarily through iTunes and cable VOD. (Ironically, its release might prove a watershed moment in the slow migration to VOD of major studio releases.) Obama made tut-tutting noises. Industry pundits fulminated. Yet the movie itself, the principle they’re defending, is barely worth the effort: an indifferent, grimly unfunny little caper that’s too slackly-paced and lackadasical even to inspire offense.
The plot is simple: Dave Skylark (James Franco) is a lightweight American TV host—imagine the fizzy insubstantiality of Ryan Seacrest crossed with the puffed-up self-importance of Geraldo Rivera—who discovers he’s a favourite of Kim Jong-un. Together with his producer and best friend Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogan), they manage to secure a one-on-one interview with the North Korean leader—and are tapped immediately by the CIA, who want to use them to take Kim out; reluctantly, they agree. But once there, Dave unexpectedly bonds with his subject, imperilling their mission...
Most of the comedy here involves a bizarre and persistent strain of gay panic, endless jokes about having things shoved up your ass—which, given the carefully cultivated ambiguity of Franco’s sexuality, seems not so much weird as disingenuous. And even allowing that I’m no fan, it has to be said that Franco is horribly, strenuously unfunny here: mugging shamelessly, overplaying every beat, leaving Rogan as a straight man with nothing good to play off. Their attempts to riff, bouncing lines back and forth, only serves to make you long for the chemistry of two actually funny people—Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill in 21 Jump Street, for instance. Those two made their banter seem effortless; their routines were hysterical. This, by contrast, is like watching two amateur comedians dying onstage. For 112 minutes.
There’s a ramshackle, will-this-do? shabbiness to the plotting—their CIA controller back in Washington (played by a slightly uncomfortable-looking Lizzie Caplan) disappears without explanation for almost the entire second half of the film—and a few outrageously lazy thefts: an Ecstasy-fuelled morning-after is borrowed wholesale from The Hangover. But some of the craft on display is admirable. Brandon Trost’s cinematography is always elegant, and sometimes unexpectedly beautiful. (One shot, of a foggy nighttime landscape, is especially lovely.) Likewise, Jon Billington’s production design. Like Rogan and co-director/writer Evan Goldberg’s previous (and glorious) Superbad, the film never looks cheap or flat, unlike so many modern comedies, where the largely improvisatory nature of the shoot requires neutral lighting and rudimentary blocking—the better to serve multiple cameras, all recording in case someone happens to drop some gold. This was most definitely scripted. It’s just that the script is lousy—not too dumb, but too uncommitted to its premise—and Franco’s a black hole at its centre.
In cultural and political terms, I defer to my wife’s far greater knowledge of the DPRK. She praised the casting (the North Koreans, she said, actually looked like real North Koreans, for the first time she could recall) and conceded that, while the film’s proposition was flawed (killing KJU would achieve nothing: another member of the ruling elite would simply replace him), the mere fact of its existence might prove useful. There’s much to be said for encouraging the population to see their leader portrayed as the deeply flawed human being he is; by exposing him to ridicule, it could well embolden the anti-system elements known to exist covertly within the nation. (She scoffed, however, at the notion that large swathes of the North Korean populace still believed the Kims to be living deities, as the film suggests.) Initially sceptical-to-hostile, she finally thought it an effective-enough display of US soft power, less a piece of entertainment than another salvo in the ongoing war for hearts and minds.
Considered purely as a movie, however, it’s a flop: a comedy fatally short on laughs. It sucks balls—a judgment its dick- and turd-obsessed makers would probably relish.