The two-character drama is one of the hardest forms to pull off, particularly in film. It strips the form down to its simplest elements — actors and text — sans the distractions of car chases or crowd scenes. If the lines feel stagy or the acting amateurish, the audience’s experience will be like a decade in dinner theater without the dinner. But when everything comes together, you end up with My Dinner with André or Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset — a masterful duet.
Steve Buscemi’s Interview isn’t in that category, but it’s lively enough to forestall the claustrophobia. The veteran character actor and indie director made the film as part of a project to bring the work of Dutch writer-director Theo van Gogh to an American audience. (Van Gogh, a descendant of that van Gogh, was murdered in 2004 by an Islamic extremist.) In the original 2003 Interview, Dutch movie star Katja Schuurman plays a movie star named Katja, whose interview with a resentful journalist becomes a dark battle of wits. For the American version, Buscemi used van Gogh’s crew and his fast-paced method — three handheld cameras filming at all times — and cast himself as the reporter and British starlet Sienna Miller as the actress.
It’s not a bad choice, considering that Katya — as she’s called in the new script by Buscemi and David Schechter — is a B-list celebrity best known for her liaisons and her breast implants. Miller (Factory Girl) is a B-lister best known for dating and dumping Jude Law. The role may not be a huge stretch, but Miller’s live-wire performance is the emotional center of the movie.
When Katya sits down for her interview with slumming news reporter Buscemi, who’d rather be covering an ongoing presidential scandal, his contempt for her is palpable. Rather than discuss her career, which he hasn’t bothered to research, he turns their conversation into a referendum on Hollywood vapidity. But Katya is no Paris Hilton. When he asks, leering, if beauty has been important to her career, she snarks back, “Has journalism been important to your personality?”
After a contrived accident sends them back to Katya’s loft, the duo continue with their sniping, fueled by sexual tension and self-disgust. Knowing the older, nebbishy Pierre is attracted to her, the actress uses her charms to humiliate him, while he challenges her to prove she’s not just a media-glorified tart. By the end of the evening, many substances have been consumed, and Katya’s phone has interrupted the sparring umpteen times with perhaps the most evil ring-tone ever conceived: It yaps like a chihuahua.
There’s potential in these unpleasant characters, who evoke both the love-hate relationship America has with its celebrities and the age-old battles between men and women. But the script is weighed down by clichés that wouldn’t be out of place on Katya’s primetime soap. This is the sort of drama where each character has a Deep, Dark Secret. When Buscemi sneaks a look in Miller’s laptop diary and discovers she’s waxing eloquent about death — much like a teenager scribbling Nine Inch Nails lyrics — he decides she must be deeper than he thought. But this only makes him seem more like a lightweight.
As a supporting player who gives a perverse little kick to every movie he’s in, be it an indie or a bloated blockbuster, Buscemi rivals Christopher Walken. But in the character of the grousing, holier-than-thou reporter, he never matches Miller in sheer intensity. The script keeps us guessing: Will the journalist force the actress to get real? But the guy comes off as such a clueless scold that, in the end, it’s hard to do anything but feel for his editor.