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The Interview

This movie. This fucking movie.

The Interview was supposed to be some stupid little Seth Rogen/James Franco movie, made to parody relations between two of the USA’s least favorite countries (namely North Korea and the USA). Then the Sony corporation got hacked and the company got turned inside out, with all its dirty little secrets made public for the world to see. Then the hackers responsible threatened more leaks and actual terrorist attacks if The Interview was released as planned.

The country’s major theater chains immediately pulled the movie, and Sony soon followed suit with the announcement that the film’s release was cancelled entirely. I’ve heard it theorized that the move to cancel the release was a calculated risk, since Americans are notoriously paranoid about threats from foreign and exotic sources (see: al Qaeda, the Ebola epidemic, etc.). The theater chains likely wagered that no one would bother going to theaters under such circumstances, figuring that people would be okay with trading a Seth Rogen picture for security. If so, it was a wager that backfired spectacularly.

The Interview became headline news as Sony and the major theater chains were branded as cowards. Everyone from the President of the United States to the moviegoers who don’t even like Seth Rogen came out against Sony, calling bullshit on their excuses for not releasing the film and expressing outrage that foreign governments can now dictate censorship in America. The anger was deafening for a few tedious days, until Sony finally buckled and announced that they would be releasing the movie on Christmas Day after all.

Once again, the country went nuts, eager to see this movie that North Korea doesn’t want anyone to see. All those moviegoers buying tickets, and the major theater chains won’t see a cent of it. Regal and AMC actively drove their customers away, steering them toward independent theaters and VOD services such as YouTube (which is hilarious, given what the Sony hacks revealed about the MPAA’s relationship with Netflix, Google, etc.), all because they blinked. Granted, there’s no shortage of movies coming out right now, so I’m sure the theater chains will still be making money. Even so, that’s a whole lot of box office cash going toward the theater chains’ biggest competitors instead of them. They’ve already been struggling so hard to stay relevant in a post-Netflix world, and they just shot themselves in the foot over a misplaced fear.

And that’s really the kicker in all of this: The fear was completely unfounded. The movie’s been playing at over 300 theaters nationwide since Christmas Day, and I’ve yet to hear about a single violent outbreak at any one of them. The so-called “Guardians of Peace” have remained silent (though an unrelated attack from the “Lizard Squad” hackers did temporarily disrupt the Playstation and Xbox networks on Christmas Day). And North Korea called President Obama a monkey. That’s it.

(Side note: I don’t know if this is something included with every copy of the film, but my screening was preceded with a neat little intro from co-directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, thanking us for coming out to see the movie in spite of all the crap surrounding its release. That was a nice touch.)

Anyway, now that the whole ruckus is finally over, let’s get to the film at the center of all this controversy. Our protagonists for today are talk show host Dave Skylark and his longtime producer, Aaron Rapaport. Dave is a vapid and hyperactive sort, with the attention span of a gnat. He’s mostly succeeded by giving his audience what they want (read: celebrity-based fluff pieces) and Dave himself seems to believe whatever he wants to be true in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Compare that to Aaron, a former journalism student who’s slowly been pushing “Skylark Tonight” toward more hard-hitting investigative stories. Thus we have Eminem coming onto the show to talk about homosexuality in his lyrics, Rob Lowe agreeing to an interview in which he confesses that he’s been wearing a toupee all this time, and a segment about a series of photos in which Matthew McConaughey is (allegedly) fucking a goat.

Incidentally, it’s James Franco playing the hyperactive doofus and Seth Rogen playing the straight man. The other way around would have been so much easier, which makes this approach so much funnier.

Getting back to the story, Dave discovers that Kim Jong Un (here played by Randall Park) is a fan of the show. Thus Aaron uses some connections to arrange a meeting with Kim’s officer of propaganda (Sook, played by Diana Bang). Together, they make arrangements for Dave to interview the North Korean dictator in the very heart of the Hermit Kingdom. This despite the fact that US/NK relations are even more strained than usual, as North Korea has just revealed that they now have ICBMs capable of crossing the Pacific.

Naturally, the CIA (by way of Agent Lacey, played by Lizzy Caplan) responds to this crisis by enlisting Dave and Aaron with the hope that they’ll kill Kim Jong Un before he can get his nukes in the air. Hilarity ensues.

First of all, though it’s absolutely true that the movie pokes a lot of fun at North Korea, the parodying is clearly just lighthearted fun crafted by people who don’t actually know the first thing about the country, made so ignorant Americans can enjoy the film without any pesky research. No, the sharpest barbs are actually reserved for us here in America.

To wit: No one takes Dave Skylark or his show seriously because they focus on celebrity tedium devoid of any urgency or intellectual substance. Then they land the Kim Jong Un interview, and everyone says that they’re idiots for taking the gig. This begs the question of what a news show is supposed to do if they’re branded as fools for taking on risks and dangerous assignments, yet they’re branded as morons for sticking with the safe and easy.

Also, as the film makes accusations toward North Korea, it draws some interesting parallels with America. So North Korea has concentration camps? Well, we have the highest percentage of incarcerated citizens in the world. Kim Jong Un might not be feeding his people, but guess what? We’ve got hungry people in America, too. Tons of them. (Seriously, have you seen our income gap?)

Pyongyang has a habit of making threats to affect international relations, and Washington D.C. has a track record of starting actual wars and deposing leaders to achieve the same end. And in our case, it’s rarely gone well (see: Iraq after Saddam Hussein). The difference, the movie seems to argue, is that Kim Jong Un is threatening millions of people so that he’ll be respected by his citizens and North Korea will be respected throughout the world. Compare that to the USA, which acts out of a (probably misplaced, but definitely sincere) sense of duty to make the world a safer place. Even so, that begs the question of when killing a legitimate leader is justified, especially when that action could lead to bloody chaos and the installation of an even worse government further down the line.

The movie’s portrayal of Kim Jong Un’s death has long since been leaked, so I don’t mind spoiling that it happens. But that scene doesn’t show that Kim is actually defeated a few scenes earlier. I don’t want to spoil exactly what happens during the titular interview, except to say that someone like Kim Jong Un doesn’t necessarily need to be defeated with bombs or bullets or poison.

There’s a point in the movie when Kim says that words hurt far more than any nuclear bomb. It’s played as a joke, but it’s really the central thesis statement of the entire movie. Kim Jong Un is a man who will not tolerate any slight toward him or his country. To such a person like that, absolutely nothing is more potentially dangerous than mockery. There is nothing that could possibly threaten a true emperor more than the statement that he has no clothes. It seems trite and cliche to say that truth is the best weapon against someone who thrives on lies, and that comedy will always be a potent defense against those without a sense of humor, yet here we are.

North Korea’s response was the absolute best possible thing that could have happened to this movie. Even if we assume that they really weren’t responsible for the Sony hacking incident, Kim Jong Un’s government has issued so many statements expressing outrage that this movie exists. Here in this country, we have people who genuinely believe that our president was born in Kenya, expressing their distaste for President Obama with the most despicable racist portrayals possible, and nobody gives a fuck. Obama himself least of all, I suspect (say what you will about the man, but he’s got a sense of humor). Yet someone makes this trifle of a comedy, and Kim Jong Un throws a hissy fit and hurls racial insults at Obama, like he and the US government had anything to do with making this film.

If this movie had come and gone without incident, it might have been just another comedy. But now that North Korea has directly confirmed the insecure nature of its leader, the film’s statements become much more relevant. Life imitated art, and the movie improves twofold because of that.

Of course, it’s not like this film is all about political comedy and highbrow satire. Far from it. There’s an overabundance of juvenile humor to be found here, mostly with regards to sexual innuendoes and related body parts. Though a couple of fingers are lost in spectacularly bloody fashion, which I personally thought was needlessly excessive. Pop culture humor also abounds; in particular, Katy Perry and the Lord of the Rings trilogy should probably have gotten supporting actor credits for how frequently they’re mentioned.

I’m also sorry to say that a lot of Rogen’s rambling and improvisational style is clearly on display. Luckily, there’s much less of it here than in This is the End, perhaps because this movie’s plot is a lot more involved by necessity than the concept of “six guys are stuck together after the apocalypse.” It also helps that the improvisational scenes have much better set-ups: The scene in which a guy can only have sex with one hand comes to mind. And of course, Rogen and Franco have such a finely-tuned chemistry that they help sell a lot of the jokes. Lizzy Caplan also shows a remarkable sense of comic timing as the brains of the operation, and Diana Bang is hardly a slouch either.

But of course the movie’s MVP is Randall Park, who brings a surprisingly multi-layered performance to Kim Jong Un. It’s a fascinating thing to watch Kim act like a complete Skylark fanboy and try to guess how much of his enthusiasm is genuine. After all, Dave is a man who’s easily distracted and endlessly optimistic, which makes him easy prey for a man who already has 24 million people believing he’s a god. Yet that doesn’t make this portrayal of Kim any less charming, and the apparent connection between two egotists in desperate need of attention is fascinating to watch.

Perhaps more importantly, Park’s work exposes the sheer lunacy of the position that Kim Jong Un is in. Remember, he’s a 31-year-old man in charge of an entire country after being raised as a god, wanting for nothing. And for no better reason than because his father left him the keys. This fictional version of Kim Jong Un is a spoiled man-child with daddy issues who never grew up, needing desperately to be seen as anything else. He’s an ordinary human being who has to keep up the illusion (to everyone, himself included) that he’s a god. And for all we know, maybe the real-life Kim Jong Un is no different. We may never know.

Without the controversy, The Interview would be an okay comedy, flattened by the onslaught of movies that inexplicably hit us this Christmas Day. But then the controversy came and proved exactly why we needed a movie like this. You have to look pretty hard underneath all the (admittedly funny) juvenile humor to see it, but this film has a surprising amount of intelligence that had the good fortune to be completely vindicated. If nothing else, the movie is worth seeing just for Randall Park. In a fair world, he’d get a Best Supporting nomination for this, at the very least.

Just do me one favor: If you have the option of seeing this in an independent theater, go buy a ticket there instead of seeing it on VOD. Your money will be better-used and more desperately needed than if it was spent with Google or Microsoft, I can promise you.

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