One of the stranger inside-baseball aspects of the leaked Sony emails and recent kerfuffle over the release of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s The Interview was the hostility or indifference toward the studio’s stars. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of the Big Six studios places fear, parent-company concerns, and ego above talent on the priority list, but Sony has also shown considerable interest in grooming or maintaining semi-in-house talent, especially in the comedy realm: Most of Adam Sandler’s movies since Big Daddy have been for Sony, along with the non-Anchorman Will Ferrell/Adam McKay movies, Phil Lord/Chris Miller projects like the 21 Jump Street series, and the probably-curtailed Cameron Diaz/Jason Segel/Jake Kasdan comedy team that made Bad Teacher and Sex Tape. The company seemed to be establishing a particularly fruitful relationship with Rogen and Goldberg, with most of their previous screenplays and story ideas (Superbad, Pineapple Express, The Green Hornet, This is the End) produced by the studio, up to and including a violent and silly movie about assassinating Kim Jong Un.
Maybe the studio’s about-face (or, to be more specific, the about-face allowing the movie a cursory theatrical release alongside VOD distribution, rather than the previous about-face away from it being released at all) was a concession to that relationship, a sign of good faith that they believe Rogen and Goldberg will make more commercial films in the future. That’s not to say that The Interview isn’t accessible; if anything, the film leavens its satire with a familiar bromantic dynamic between Rogen, playing the producer of a popular celebrity chat show, and James Franco, playing the dimmer but more enthusiastic host of said show. Rogen has a rep as a slobby party-animal comedian, but as far back as Freaks and Geeks, he’s been more of a reactor, trying to scramble or wisecrack his way out of extreme situations, not creating them himself. Franco, on the other hand, really comes alive in his comic roles, and happily preens through this one as an enthusiastically vapid meta-celebrity trying to boost his cred for reasons he only seems to half-understand.
The Interview follows the pair from New York to North Korea, where they’ve scored an unlikely exclusive interview with fan Kim Jong Un—which the CIA has asked them to turn into an opportunity to take him out permanently. The movie gooses North Korea’s nuclear threat to justify a plot that revolves around two basically likable guys conspiring to commit murder—and then cleverly undermines that justification by making Kim Jong Un, as played by Randall Park (Veep), a more sympathetic monster. Some of the smartest, weirdest bits of the movie have Franco’s talk show host feeling an instant kinship with the isolated, eager-to-impress dictator—a sharp indictment of celebrity “journalism” that involves cozying up to a subject and/or turning on a dime to wish them dead.
These satirical implications aren’t always expertly teased out by the movie, even as it provides consistent amusement and several big laughs. Other Rogen comedies have been scattered, but with more purpose: the stoner haze of Pineapple Express or the unpredictable free-for-all of This is the End. Despite its geographical scope, this one is smaller, sparer, operating from a smaller reservoir of jokes. If The Interview feels a little like a Rogen/Goldberg gloss on someone else’s script, it may be because they conceived it with writer Dan Sterling, who gets sole credit on the screenplay itself. Sterling has an impressive roster of TV credits (Girls, The Office, The Daily Show), and I wonder if the more deadpan style of that material didn’t mesh perfectly with the slightly zanier nature of this movie. The Interview pretty much works, but it’s the unmistakable product of filmmakers given trust and leeway. This movie got out (albeit in a smaller release than planned); the real question is whether Sony will indulge Rogen and Goldberg—or Ferrell and McKay, or other comic mavericks—so readily in the future.
Will Gluck is another Sony favorite; the company believed in him enough to ignore the critical and box office failure of his first film, Fired Up!, allowing him to make Easy A and Friends with Benefits, reasonably successful low-cost, high-charm comedies for the company’s Screen Gems unit. He gets promoted to Big Sony for Annie, a re-adaptation of the stage musical following a 1982 version that, like a lot of mediocre movies children saw during the eighties, is well-regarded in certain demographics today.
It’s not a bad choice for a remake; this isn’t sacrosanct material, and it’s a nice showcase for Quvenzhané Wallis, the kind of precocious child actor who could easily be lost in the Hollywood system. Wallis made her debut in Beasts of the Southern Wild; a few years on, she acts more like a traditional child star, with a crucial addition of near-boundless charm. Annie’s upbeat pluckiness can skip straight into cloying territory so easily, but Wallis makes it winning—pure, infectious optimism. Jamie Foxx, playing Daddy Warbucks equivalent Will Stacks, knows enough to stand back and not try to outdo her, though ego or star power or record sales or something allows him to croon one of the film’s worst new numbers, a duet with Wallis while they’re both crammed in a helicopter (it would be a great joke on space constraints if the movie played it for laughs, but alas, they’re serious).
The musical numbers are generally on the amateurish side, but staged with a lot of energy: “Hard-Knock Life” takes its cues from the Jay-Z sampling that seems to have inspired the whole endeavor (Jay exec-produces) and also Stomp, but it has a scrappy, homemade charm. Cameron Diaz, not renowned for her vocal power (it’s even a plot point of My Best Friend’s Wedding) gets some help from both the studio (which smooths out her voice and everyone else’s; no one will mistake this singing for even faking Tom Hooper-style live takes) and Gluck’s most inventive staging, as her Miss Hannigan flounces around her apartment singing “Little Girls.” The Hannigan character in general, played to the mugging hilt by Diaz, benefits from Gluck’s generosity toward his characters. His movies tend not to have full-on villains, which is probably why his rejiggered climax, clumsily lurching into a lame car chase, lacks the cute snap of the movie’s first hour.
Another of Gluck’s trademarks and one of his weaknesses remains his desire to let you know that he has, in fact, seen other movies. Easy A paid insistent, referential homage to John Hughes and “eighties movies” even though its story stood fine on its own, while Friends with Benefits was a rom-com that expended considerable energy on jokes about rom-coms—in other words, explaining that it was much cooler and more self-aware than its genre. The thing is, it wasn’t, particularly; it was just funnier and sweeter. Here Gluck can’t resist making jokes about the earlier Annie (the movie opens on a chipper, curly-haired redhead) or about the incongruity of people singing and dancing (one, towards the end, courtesy of SNL’s Bobby Moynihan). As bookending winks, these would be fine—that is, if Gluck’s eyes weren’t working themselves into a winking frenzy throughout. But he does have an eye for pop-culture satire, and follows his romcom-within-a-romcom from Friends with Benefits with a YA-romance spoof (Miller and Lord may have had a hand in it).
Cute as it is, Annie is Gluck’s worst in a while, if only by default. Beyond its back-stretch fumbles, the movie charts a Bloombergian equation of hard work and fabulous wealth reminiscent of producer Will Smith’s starring turn in The Pursuit of Happyness, in which other homeless people posed a greater threat to the struggling hero than the avuncular white stock brokers who give him a fair shot. Annie doesn’t press this agenda quite so firmly, but it’s still an uncomfortable fit for a relatively modest family musical about a de facto orphan.
That conflict may be indicative of the ways Sony’s film division remains at odds with itself, unsatisfied with the lack of super-wealth accrued by its many successes. The leaked emails revealed—or rather, directly confirmed—a whole lot of flailing about what to do with its big-money franchises like Spider-Man and Men in Black. Yet the studio has made plenty of money, and a substantial number of decent movies, with a lower-budget model: its comedies (like This is the End and, yech, even the likes of Grown Ups 2) and dramas (like Captain Phillips and American Hustle) routinely post better returns on investment than their biggest tentpoles. Their entire holiday slate consists of a modestly budgeted Seth Rogen comedy and a medium-budget live-action musical; their biggest 2013 release was a David O. Russell dramedy. Not every studio has to be as good at the mega-blockbuster model as Disney, but judging by all the Spider-Man nonsense, it eats away at Sony that they’re not. That’s where the impact of the Interview controversy may be ultimately felt: on the budget lines, or very existence, of Sony movies without Smurfs, Spider-Men, or other special effects. Movies like Annie, in other words, may find out what a hard-knock life it can be.