Editor’s Note: On December 17, Sony Pictures Entertainment announced that it was cancelling the December 25 theatrical release of “The Interview,” following threats by a group called “Guardians of Peace.” Fortunately, we had the opportunity to see the movie at a press screening held before the cancellation. What follows is our previously scheduled review of the movie, updated to reflect these developments.
Jokes at the expense of injustice are a guilty pleasure for most people — an opportunity to take a break from political correctness and indulge in a little bad behavior. Witness the popularity of “Cards Against Humanity,” the party game that encourages players to match questions like “What did the US airdrop to the children of Afghanistan?” with answers like “Kids with ass cancer.”
But in this most serious of morally serious times, such pleasures seem less benign. “How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?” goes the old joke. Answer: “That’s not funny.” And how many bullets does it take to kill an unarmed black teenager? Well, that’s not funny either, and it’s no joke.
But never mind racism, sexism, homophobia — how about genocide, torture, and totalitarian political repression? It’s pretty hard to make jokes about ISIS beheadings, or Taliban kidnappings, or CIA rectal feedings. You might say it’s too soon, but then again, Daniel Pearl and Abu Ghraib don’t seem too funny just about now, either.
Enter “The Interview,” the latest comedy from writer-director-actor trio Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen and James Franco (with major writing contributions by Dan Sterling). Like their previous collaborations, “The Interview” has the ingredients of classic American comedy. While pushing the boundaries of violence and vulgarity, it embraces a feel-good message of friendship and human commitment. Though irreverent on the surface, it is earnest, even sentimental, underneath.
Only here the dance between shock and “aw…” is a little more complicated. Unlike the trio’s previous movies, such as “Pineapple Express,” which involves a cartoonish film-noir plot featuring corrupt cops and Asian drug syndicates, or “This Is the End,” which is about the biblical apocalypse, “The Interview” is set against the real-life dystopia that is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
In fact, the premise of the movie is similar to an actual stunt mounted in 2013 by VICE. Upon learning that supreme leader Kim Jong-un, like his father Kim Jong-il before him, is a big fan of American basketball, VICE managed to get a documentary crew into the country under the guise of a sports-cultural exchange, accompanied by Dennis Rodman and a few of the Harlem Globetrotters. “The Interview,” while using the idea of a celebrity-enabled North Korean visit, simplifies the set-up by making the celebrity guest and media representative one and the same.
Dave Skylark — played with obnoxious glee by Franco — is a charismatic and successful talk show host, if also something of a buffoon. While Skylark is content with his role as B-list television persona, interviewing celebrities like Eminem (who comes out as gay on-air) and Rob Lowe (who comes out as bald), his producer and best friend, Aaron Rapaport (Rogen) has grander journalistic ambitions. So when Skylark learns that Korean dictator Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) is a big fan of the show, Rapaport reaches out for an interview.
The whole operation is soon co-opted by the CIA for an assassination attempt (Skylark: “This is a major television event — you don’t want to blow it with an off-screen death!”), and it doesn’t take long for anal humor, awkward sex, and gory “The Lord of the Rings” references to ensue. But the journalistic premise provides a nice opportunity for pre-emptive criticism on the part of the filmmakers, plus a few high-profile cameos.
When the mainstream media — including the real-life Brian Williams and Bill Maher — get wind of Skylark’s exclusive, they raise an obvious question: Can a featherweight like Skylark do a serious interview with the North Korean leader? Won’t this just be a propaganda opportunity for the Korean government?
And for a while, it seems like it will be. After Skylark and Rapaport arrive in the country, Kim shows up to hang out with his celebrity new best friend. They play basketball, party with Kim’s harem of half-nude women, and drive around in a tank given to Kim’s grandfather by Stalin (“In my country it’s pronounced Stallone,” Skylark sagely offers). Kim confesses his insecurities, and Skylark encourages him to embrace his love of margaritas and Katy Perry. In the end, Skylark thinks, Kim may not be such a bad guy after all.
What we know, of course, is very different. According to Human Rights Watch, “arbitrary arrest, lack of due process, and torture are pervasive problems” in North Korea. There are also more than 200,000 inmates of North Korean prison camps, including children, “where many perish from forced labor, inadequate food, and abuse by guards.” And although the movie dwells more on the threat of nuclear war than on domestic human rights violations, such horrific conditions are referenced as well.
And yet, despite all of this, “The Interview” is tremendous fun. However much you may love to hate James Franco for his arty pretentions, he is a fantastic comic actor who doesn’t just mug for the camera, but seems like he’s having a great time doing it as well.
Meanwhile, Rogen is a slightly more put-together version of his usual nebbishy self — a successful New York TV producer rather than, as in “Pineapple Express,” a pot smoking process server — but he has no problem subjecting his character to a string of indignities, including getting attacked by a tiger, stuffing a metal can up his rectum and having his fingers bitten off by an over-zealous North Korean studio technician. He also has no problem rewarding his character with the love of the movie’s resident babe, propaganda official Sook, played by Diana Bang.
But although the pleasure of “The Interview” lies in Franco’s goofing around, and in the witty-dumb banter between Franco and Rogen, “The Interview” also has the brains to offer a meta-defense of itself. Although the CIA wants to kill Kim, the odd couple arrives at what they think is a better strategy: making him look ridiculous. While there will always be another supreme leader to take the reigns, deflating Kim’s cult of personality could do lasting damage to the dictatorship.
That thesis is a bit hopeful, and the Hollywood ending is itself not much more than a (violent) exercise in wishful thinking. But here “The Interview” follows in the tradition of other dictatorship comedies, especially Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 send-up of Hitler in “The Great Dictator.” Like “The Interview,” Chaplin’s film also ends on an unrealistically optimistic note, with the fictional Adenoid Hinkel’s warmongering and anti-Semitism reversed in a fortuitous case of mistaken identity. And although the historical parallels are loose, “The Great Dictator” was itself banned in Britain under the country’s early appeasement strategy, and when it did screen Chaplin found himself on a Nazi hit list.
So too, Sony Pictures Entertainment has found itself hacked because of the movie, and theaters and movie-goers have been threatened with violence. In their statement, a group calling itself “Guardians of Peace” promised a “bitter fate” for “those who seek fun in terror.” Threats of violence and strangely phrased English aside, it’s actually not a terrible criticism. Even Chaplin said that he wouldn’t have made his movie if he had known the truth about the Nazi concentration camps.
Only in this case the hackers seem to have proved the filmmaker’s point. Making fun of a dictator can be effective, it turns out. It’s disappointing that safety concerns have caused Sony to cancel the movie’s theatrical release and, although it will presumably be available on the Internet or video on demand, it does feel like the terrorists have won a round.
But this whole fiasco also shows that comedy can still be dangerous, even when it’s full of poop jokes. If North Korea feels threatened by “The Interview,” score one for the good guys. Evildoers, beware.
Ezra Glinter is the critic-at-large of the Forward.