Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s 2013 smash This Is the End, which also starred Rogen and James Franco and gave them the clout to do The Interview, put several kinds of “joint” in the idea of “joint identity.” When the stars and their friends weren’t smoking weed, they were spanking the monkey. Depicting a fictionalized version of the “Judd Apatow gang” as a team of wankers, Rogen and Goldberg turned their scathing yet adoring eyes on the frat-boy type of male bonding that’s tantamount to self-love. Not surprisingly, the film’s low-comic high point was a proud confession of masturbatory feats. This Is the End was funny in a gleefully disreputable way, but it also announced a creative climax. The movie revitalized “bromance” by actually burning it to a crisp in a fiery Hollywood apocalypse, featuring a Satan who inspired penis envy among guys obsessed with their own members.

When Rogen, Goldberg, and Dan Sterling came up with the script for The Interview, they saw it as another way to goose the bromantic comedy back to life and even into relevance, this time using real-world catastrophe. Scrape away the external controversies and what’s remarkable about it is how snugly it fits into a buddy-movie formula. Starring Franco as a dufus celebrity interviewer, Dave Skylark, and Rogen as his smart, self-loathing producer, Aaron Rapoport, the movie tries to satirize and celebrate bro-therly love while rocketing it into the realm of nuclear geopolitics. As everybody knows by now, this team scores an interview with Kim Jong-un (Randall Park), a Skylark fan, only to be seduced by CIA Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) into trying to assassinate North Korea’s supreme leader. What you don’t know until you see the film is that its MAD magazine parodies of crass American journalism and North Korean mind control surround more protestations of comradely love than you’d find in the team-ups of Hope and Crosby, Martin and Lewis, and Newman and Redford—combined. The novelty is that the rival who tests the pals’ Krazy Glue–like bond is Kim. The premise of the farce is that Skylark’s ultra-impressionable nature makes it easy for the dictator to draw him into a man crush.

If Franco were a competent comic actor, The Interview might have stood on its own two feet, albeit in floppy clown shoes. But Franco isn’t skillful enough at embodying or parodying Skylark’s idiotic glibness. This actor’s method for impersonating a shallow tabloid-TV interviewer is to squint with concentration or to contort into expressions of oversize enthusiasm. Perhaps worse, Franco mugs his way through over-the-top demonstrations of Skylark’s love for Rapoport, his instant lust for Agent Lacey, and his summer-camp camaraderie with Kim. To be fair to Franco, his character even as written is, to quote Diane Keaton in Woody Allen’s Love and Death, “incredibly jejune.” He treats The Lord of the Rings as his Bible. He repeatedly refers to Rapoport as the Gandalf or Samwise Gamgee to his Frodo. Skylark’s pre-Kim coup as an interviewer comes when Eminem casually admits that he’s gay. The rapper, it turns out, has been dropping “a breadcrumb trail” in his lyrics, pointing listeners toward his homosexuality. He’s been “playing peekaboo” about his sexual preference with his audience, all along. Skylark himself waxes enthusiastic about the “money shots” in gay porn. The movie continually flirts with outing him as gay or bisexual, much as This Is the End did the character “James Franco.” The onslaught of nudge-nudge, wink-wink gags click only as a “meta” treatment of high- and low-media fascination with Franco’s off-screen sexuality. (An essay in the current Cineaste, “What’s So Queer About James Franco?,” says that Franco “is playing this cat-and-mouse game with our perceptions, expectations, projections and always shifting conclusions about him, his celebrity, and his work.” Nathan Lee in his FILM COMMENT review of Interior. Leather Bar. puts it more directly: “What does it mean that James Franco is playing with the fact that we know that he knows that we want to know whether or not…?”)

Rogen and Goldberg fit promising social and political burlesques around their buddy story. Rapaport is a Columbia-educated newsman who seeks to push Skylark into honest-to-God reporting. Even when the interview with Kim is conditioned on asking scripted questions, Skylark cajoles Rapaport into going through with the event because it will catapult them into the broadcasting big leagues. I envisioned Rapoport as the baggy-pants equivalent of disillusioned spies in wised-up espionage fiction. After all, Rapoport recognizes the moral quandaries in assassination. He could have been the farcical equivalent of Rupert Friend’s Quinn in Showtime’s Homeland, who goes through a “plague on all your houses” phase, then comes to his senses when he sees the depths of enemy depravity. No such luck. Rapaport’s peak accomplishment is hiding a forearm-sized canister containing poison up his butt. Naturally, as Rapaport does the dirty but necessary deed, Skylark and Agent Lacey set off a fusillade of comic analogies to anal sex. Rogen told Rolling Stone’s Josh Eells: “The movie itself is kind of our attempt to do what Aaron is doing in the movie. And it was born out of a very similar thought: Are we gonna just make movies about guys trying to get laid over and over again? Or, now that we have people’s attention, maybe we can focus it on something slightly more relevant—while still doing shit we think is funny. Which, for better or for worse, is sticking missiles up people’s asses.” In The Interview, it’s definitely for worse.

Rogen and Goldberg display their genuine talent for comic hyperbole in the opening tableau: a small Korean girl sings an anti-Yankee anthem to a vast military audience. (It turns out she’s the opening number for a missile blast.) She’s irresistible when she warbles that it fills her tiny little heart with joy to think of Americans suffering fates worse than death. The rest of the film relies more on highly variable gross-out humor. Like politicians playing to their base, Rogen and Goldberg don’t stint on gore and vomit. In the movie, North Koreans believe their supreme leader neither urinates nor defecates. The Interview is so chock-full of scatology that debunking that myth might have been its raison d’être.

Diana Bang conjures a terse, crash-and-burn panache for her role of a North Korean propaganda chief named Sook, who ignites Rapaport’s id. Sook has the brains to ask when Americans will stop making the mistake of killing enemy leaders instead of exposing their perfidy to their captive populations. Too bad the movie’s script moots the question. Sook gets more to do than Caplan’s crisp, droll Agent Lacey. But Rogen isn’t deft enough as a physical comic to wring laughs from the film’s most clever setup: Rapaport trying to make love to Sook one-handed. The actor who gives the most rounded performance in every way is Park, who is equally convincing as an ebullient, overgrown fanboy and a world-conqueror wannabe. Rogen is far better at directing other performers—or at least performers who are not close friends—than he is at directing himself. He’s right on the mark when he says in RS that he, Goldberg, and Sterling wrote Kim “as more robotic and strict—what you would expect—but Randall played him as a lot more sheepish and shy, which was much funnier.” Park’s instincts underline the wittiest aspect of the script: its depiction of Kim Jong-un as an Oedipal wreck who never recovered from knowing Kim Jong-il considered him less than a man for liking a drink as “gay” as margaritas. Kim’s inferiority complex not only connects to Skylark’s but also makes Kim hilariously volatile in the role of divine paternal figure. The Interview’s depiction of a pressure-cooker cult of personality really is daring, in ways that go beyond the guest-dictator appearance of Saddam Hussein in The Big Lebowski or even the uproarious treachery of Kim Jong-il in Team America: World Police. Whether or not the real Kim tried to sabotage the movie, Park’s fictional Kim steals it.