You wouldn’t think that a movie whose plot hinges on a “sharting” incident would become one of the year’s most controversial and incendiary pictures, but what can I tell you, it’s an odd cultural moment. The film in question is The Interview, a broad, dumb, (mostly) funny comedy about dopey American buddies getting into hot water abroad — Road to North Korea, if you will. But because the objective of their mission is the assassination of a dictator not exactly known for his good-sport sense of humor, The Interview has become a cause célèbre, resulting in one of the most thorough, invasive, and scary data breaches in history. In the midst of a flood of private emails, salary spreadsheets, and outright threats, there’s an undeniable feeling of “All that over this?” while watching Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s comedy. But like it or not, logically or not, The Interview is now deeply, surprisingly important.
But it’s also impossible to make a pronouncement like that without sounding profoundly silly. It’s a Seth Rogen-James Franco vehicle, for God’s sake, replete with the expected drug jokes, sex jokes, shit jokes, bare boobs, creative profanity, and pop culture references. The story of two numbskulls deployed by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jong-un while in North Korea for a softball TV interview, it follows directors Rogen and Goldberg’s This Is The End by playing on our perceptions of its stars. They’re not playing themselves this time, but Franco’s talk show host, Dave Skylark, is a vapid, self-involved fame whore (so y’know, you connect the dots) and Rogen, as his producer, is a likable, well-intentioned screw-up. The characters have different names, but they’re variations on the same personae — just like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in the aforementioned Road pictures.
So it’s similarly nutty to imagine, say, Mohammed V threatening war against the United States over Road to Morocco. But that’s exactly what happened last summer, when North Korea issued a statement calling The Interview “an act of war” whose release would prompt “a decisive and merciless countermeasure.” And while the group that perpetrated the Sony hack, “Guardians of Peace,” has not been officially linked to the North Korean government, said government has deemed it a “righteous deed,” and the group has demanded Sony “stop immediately showing the movie of terrorism which can break the regional peace and cause the War!”
This, again, feels like an opportune moment to reiterate that we’re talking about a movie whose midpoint set piece involves hiding an air-dropped metal device in Seth Rogen’s ass.
There is precedent for this sort of thing. All the way back in 1940, Charles Chaplin directed and starred in The Great Dictator, playing both a decidedly Hitler-esque dictator and his dead ringer, a variation on Chaplin’s familiar Tramp character. Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police concerned a marionette-led attempt to take out Jong-un’s father. Americans were a good deal less bothered by that film than they were by the 2006 British film Death of a President, a faux-documentary account of the assassination of George W. Bush; “That anyone would even attempt to profit on such a horrible scenario makes me sick,” Hillary Clinton announced.
But what’s interesting about Dan Sterling’s screenplay is how, surprisingly enough, it resists the urge to paint the dictator solely as an evil cartoon villain; if anything, the portrayal of Kim by the eminently likable Randall Park (The Five Year Engagement) is that of a mostly harmless buffoon. Sure, he’s capable of nuking the West Coast — a fictional capability added for the film, and one that changes the stakes considerably — but he fan-boys over Franco’s Dave (“Don’t say something stupid, Kim!” he admonishes himself). They shoot hoops to ODB and go joyriding in his tank, blasting Katy Perry. The ease with which he takes Dave in, and gets him on his side, makes it clear that this isn’t just a satire of politics, but of celebrity and empty-headed media.
There are moments in The Interview that are somewhat uncomfortably infected by the hubbub surrounding the picture, particularly near its end. That ending, we’ve learned (circuitously enough) via the email hack, was the result of considerable wrangling between Rogen and Sony head Amy Pascal (spoiler-heavy details here), who asked him to tone down a few shots that had raised the concerns of Kazuo Hirai, chairman of Sony Corporation (“This isn’t some flunky,” she pleaded). Rogen capitulated, slightly (“Please tell us this is over now,” he wrote once the dust settled), but he initially resisted — and rightfully so. “This is now a story of Americans changing their movie to make North Koreans happy,” he wrote in an August email. “That is a very damning story.”
It’s probably safe to assume that, given the chance to do it all over again, Sony would’ve taken a hard pass on The Interview; the many, many employees violated by the hack presumably concur, and even its stars are feeling the heat. In a Los Angeles Times interview conducted before the shit hit the fan, Rogen joked, “if it does start a war, hopefully people will say, ‘You know what? It was worth it. It was a good movie!'” He probably hasn’t made that joke much lately.
The Interview isn’t quite a great comedy — some of the jokes are cheap (even for this kind of movie), you can’t buy it a female character worth a damn, and poor Lizzy Caplan disappears for so long in the second half, I forgot she was even in it. But it’s funny and strange, with an admirably gonzo sensibility, and it approaches the job of mocking Kim with the appropriate degree of joy-buzzer delight. At last night’s premiere — following a red carpet where, ironically enough, no interviews were allowed — Rogen took pains to thank Sony’s embattled head thus: “We just want to thank Amy Pascal for having the balls to make this… thing.”
And that line is oddly perfect — their film isn’t a profound political or personal statement, but that’s not the only art worth fighting for, or that the courtesy of free expression extends to. Rogen and Goldberg weren’t trying to start an international incident or bring an entertainment giant to its knees. They just went and made this thing. And now it’s all this.
The Interview is out Christmas Day.