With all of the news surrounding Sony Pictures’ comedy film The Interview, starring James Franco and Seth Rogen and directed by Rogen and Evan Goldberg, its difficult to try and distillate a factual message about what the film actually is, as opposed to what it represents. With the strong reaction toward it apparently originating in North Korea and precipitating such an unprecedented wave of cyber crime toward the studio that helped to create it, some domestic audiences will undoubtedly see it as a rallying cry for patriotism and against censorship.
For such a relatively innocuous intent of a film, it’s certainly caused a great deal of discussion and debate in a number of different important disciplines. From international relations matters directly discussed by the highest levels of the American government, to the business relationships between a major movie studio and all of the major theater owners in the country, all the way down to the ethics of censorship in a free society. At this point in time, The Interview, a film depicting the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea defecating in his pants, is at the center of it.
Some critics who saw the film before the major elements of the controversy broke out were quick to say upon its original theatrical cancellation that there was virtually nothing remarkable about it. As a comedy film featuring Rogen and Franco, it depicts an expected number of phallic and fart jokes, and has moments that range from being genuinely laugh-out-loud funny to missing the mark pretty dramatically. Some people who watch it might even be perplexed at the uproar this film has caused. “This?!,” you might think. “This is what caused so many powerful people so much trouble?”
While on its face you can say that The Interview is at least on par with a film like This is the End or Pineapple Express, there is one thing that I find hard to dispute: that is that this movie does have an unusual intelligence behind it because of its attention to detail, at least insofar as American culture has been able to glean details from the highly isolated country of North Korea. Is this a caricature of real people who might get really pissed off at their depiction here? Yes, absolutely. Thankfully, though, there’s an inkling of truth to the overall story shown in this film, once you get past the poop and penis jokes.
As a movie taken strictly at face value, The Interview is pretty standard fare for fans of Rogen, Franco, and Goldberg. The writing in places is certainly funny, and the impeccable comedic timing of both primary actors, in some places at least, makes up for a poorly written joke here or there. The thing I found most impressive about the movie itself was in many of the supporting players. Randall Park, a relative newcomer to the film acting scene with his first credit being in 2010’s Dinner for Schmucks, turns in an often hilarious and equally menacing portrayal/caricature of Kim Jong-un. He and Franco’s scenes together when their characters first meet provided some of the film’s funniest moments, from their bonding over Katy Perry’s music to showing the “perks” of being the dictator of a country.
In one brief scene, Park turns the menace on and up to 11 when he expresses his murderous outrage over the rest of the world’s treatment of his status as a world leader, and it shows that the creative team was out to cast a quality actor in, arguably, the film’s most important part. Diana Bang as DPRK military officer Sook also turns in a surprisingly earnest performance, and everyone surrenders themselves to the movie’s dual-tone of irreverence and perspective on such an odd and isolated country.
Certain critics of this film have called it “racist,” and I’m not certain that’s a fair argument. While some of Seth Rogen and James Franco’s brief lines can be considered racist, they are very minor moments in the overall film, and aren’t dwelled upon in any substantive manner. They’re also played for laughs at their ignorance more than anything. A fairer thing to say is that the movie is a cultural misrepresentation of the North Korean government and its people, which is very different from being racist. The broad strokes are certainly true, at least as we understand them: harsh environments and legions of hungry people make up far too much of the country’s estimated population of 25 million people, propaganda permeates the country both for its residents and toward foreigners, and the government of that country certainly has a strong disdain for the Western world that borders on being venomous.
Therein lies the element that separates this film from so many of its contemporaries, though: its detail. Most American citizens have not been to North Korea, and will never go. The few times that an American journalist has been allowed access to the North Korean people and their lives on the street has gleaned details that look very well represented in this film’s portrayal of the isolated nation. Fake grocery stores, for instance, isn’t a concept that’s been dreamed up out of thin air by Rogen and screenwriter Dan Sterling: there are certainly documented instances of the DPRK’s government doing their best to create facades of an idyllic life within the country to foreign visitors, creating museum-like tableaus of its own people just so they might go back and say that things “aren’t so bad” there.
To try and sum this up, The Interview is not a rallying cry for American patriotism, nor is watching it some kind of profound statement against censorship. At the same time, I don’t think that its a mindless comedy filled with sophomoric jokes, either. The end of the movie certainly represents a pipe dream of America’s foreign policy with the country. The truth is, though, that the problems there are more complex than they’re represented in this film, but I think the filmmakers know that. At its worst, The Interview is a cartoonish caricature of real people that commit atrocities against their own people on a daily basis, surrounded by a thick layer of dick and fart jokes.
At its best, though, it might inspire people to learn more about a bizarre and interesting history between our people and an eccentric world neighbor, and as someone who actively studied international relations with an emphasis on the DPRK, I can tell you: there’s a bit more truth here than you might think.
One element that’s not very true, though, is the North’s military capability. So, on that note, I think you can go and enjoy this movie without fear of becoming a personal enemy of the North Korean government. Chances are that, if you’re an American, you already are, and so am I.
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