Saturday, January 3, 2015

Agit-Plop: Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen's The Interview

Probably the biggest irony concerning Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen's political satire, The Interview, is that the controversial events surrounding it, and the global political ramifications its been linked to, will be more memorable in time than the film itself. Who knew that it would take a stoner comedy from Sony Pictures to help launch a terrorist cyber war on the Western world from hackers allied with North Korea – an act that would end up with the film being pulled before its Christmas Day release? After an initial act of censorship, and President Obama slapping the studio and movie venues on the wrist, The Interview is now playing in selected theatres. But is the picture itself worth all the bother? Well, no. But like most things that get censored, the reasons being offered are more troubling – and more illuminating – than the film creating the fuss.

As a piece of slacker comedy, The Interview actually begins quite well, with a clever parody of the "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" scene in Cabaret, and then unfolds as casually and as genially goofy as a scatological Crosby/Hope road movie. Dave Skylark (James Franco) is an ingratiatingly dippy host of Skylark Tonight, a celebrity talk show. Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen) is the show's producer, but he still longs for a career in serious journalism and has settled for being a success in populist banality. While celebrating the biggest scoop on the show (rapper Eminem comes out of the closet in the movie's best staged gag), as well as their 1,000th episode, they discover that the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un (Randall Park, who plays the expedient Minnesota governor Danny Chung on HBO's Veep) is a huge fan. Thinking that there's still an opportunity for legitimacy in current affairs programming, Aaron leaps for an opportunity to interview the Stalinist dictator. Once he sets their historic meeting in motion, by travelling to China to receive (all too briefly for the trouble) instructions from Sook (Diana Bang), an attractive North Korean official, his host Dave eagerly accepts the assignment. The CIA, however, have also been monitoring their movements and have another assignment in mind. Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan from Masters of Sex) recruits the duo to assassinate Kim in order to facilitate a coup to bring down his government. With the use of a poisonous transdermal strip, hidden on Dave's hand, a handshake between him and Kim would complete the deed. Of course, Dave blows it and from there the picture – literally – descends into chaos. Any goodwill the movie had in its first half-hour also gets completely squandered. The screenplay by Dan Sterling, which runs out of ideas before he even gets to the point of the plot, simply indulges in stupidly unpleasant and badly staged slapstick gags that would make The Three Stooges blush with embarrassment. In one, upon arrival in North Korea, Kim's bodyguard discovers the strip and seizes it. Thinking its gum, he eats it and dies. The CIA has to smuggle another one in that's airlifted in a phallic container that Aaron has to smuggle into the palace rectally. Before long, the attempted coup descends into the grisly violence that contributed to making Pineapple Express so unpleasant. The Interview, like the container in Aaron's rectum, disappears up its own ass.

James Franco and Seth Rogen.

The performers are also left largely stranded due to little characterization provided in the story. James Franco's blissful fan-boy demeanour as Dave would have been a lot funnier if he didn't work it so hard. Franco has so little to play that he resorts to frantic mugging, leaving him chewing up what little scenery the film provides us. Seth Rogen has played variations on this character in other pictures, but even he becomes exhaustively desperate – especially in his love scene with Diana Bang's Sook, who has a hidden libidinal smile that is never allowed to crack into one. Lizzy Caplan, on the other hand, is as humourless as she is playing Virginia Johnson on Masters of Sex. In the funniest moments of Masters of Sex, Caplan never seems to be in on the joke – even if she is the one making it. She is almost as emotionally armoured here playing Agent Lacey as if fighting the bad taste in her lines. As for Randall Park's Kim, the puppet playing his father in Team America: World Police was given more personality to play with. Park is at least lively, portraying him as another lascivious party animal who has a love of margaritas and Katy Perry (which makes him appear as if he'll be soon coming out of the same closet as Eminem). The homoeroticism in the interplay between Dave and Kim though diffuses the picture's comic potential since the pairing of Dave and Aaron also has that same unacknowledged bonding – and nothing is ever done with it. The Interview is actually too dumb and unaware to make any connections, sexual or political, that would give the frat boys attending the movie too much discomfort. The assassination of Kim itself is staged as if to parody a Michael Bay action film, but it's so clumsy that it could be paying homage to him, as if telling North Korea that we live up to everything they loathe about us. Even here, The Interview isn't very effective comic agit-prop; it's the new genre of agit-plop. 

When news of The Interview first came out, I don't think anybody was thinking The Manchurian Candidate. But some film critics on social media, after Sony pulled the picture, seemed outraged that the movie was drawing all of this international attention. They even went so far as implicitly supporting its suppression because it wasn't the kind of picture worthy of their support. A few even suggested that The Interview, because of its juvenile condemnation of Kim John-un, was asking for trouble (as did many news outlets like the Washington Post which prompted a friend of mine to ask, "Where does the Post's sudden respect for Kim Jong-un come from?"). Are we so worried about offending a cruel, sadistic dictator that we can't satirize how two dweebs get hired by the CIA to assassinate him? The Interview doesn't even have the moxy, the inventiveness, or the highly subversive humour of Team America: World Police (2004) (which also mercilessly and hilariously parodied the Hollywood action genre). But whether The Interview is a bad comedy, or the daring satire like The Manchurian Candidate, isn't the point. Instead of addressing a clear violation of freedom of expression, why are we blaming the company for green-lighting a dumb comedy that is essentially as artistically edifying as The Three Stooges tweaking Hitler in You Nazty Spy! in the Forties (which they did when America was still neutral in fighting fascism)? Should Hollywood have shown caution there, too? In 2006, Britain's Film Four released a film called Death of a President which featured the assassination of President George Bush, during a time of war, and I don't remember anyone calling for a censoring of the film. (It actually did open in the United States despite an unforgiving portrait of Bush.) Artistic freedom matters whether you are Seth Rogen or Jean Renoir. South Korean cinema routinely takes shots at Kim (and for damn good reason), but should they also be cooling it? I think what gets under some critics' skin is that The Interview represents everything they loathe about corporate Hollywood and leads them to empathize with the forces of censorship. (It's one of the areas where left and right ideologues make smooching bed companions.) If Paul Thomas Anderson (who is considered an artist, and has made his own, very different, stoner comedy this Christmas season with Inherent Vice) had made The Interview, the critics who are appalled would be singing a different tune. 

James Franco and Randall Park in The Interview.

Then there are those artists who themselves started making ridiculously rational pleas for censorship. Paul Schrader reflecting back on Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), which he scripted, said after the recent pulling of The Interview: "There is no such thing as Free Speech. Never has been. There has always been an ill defined red line between what is permissible and what is not. Somewhere between 'Do not yell 'Fire' in a crowded theater' and Don't Insult the Queen's Wardrobe. It constantly fluctuates. Scorsese and I did not believe we'd crossed the red line on The Last Temptation of Christ but we had. That film was censored as surely as The Interview but only after terrorist injuries and deaths. Every studio knows that blasphemy against the Prophet or incitation to racial violence are beyond the red line. Now they know making a joke out of assassinating the head of a hostile head of state is across the red line. Labelling The Interview confrontation as a Freedom of Speech issue simplifies a more complex argument." Besides there being a huge difference between yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theatre and a movie being screened in one, I do not recalling any "terrorist injuries and deaths" over Last Temptation (except for one incident in France), only protests, threats and heavy security. It's disturbing when artists start finding justification for censorship – especially after their last film (Schrader's own Dying of the Light) was subjected to cuts they didn't ask for. Right-wing pundits have also decided that it's our patriotic duty to see The Interview as if movie-going should be aligned with civic virtue. But here, they end up turning a mindless, poorly-made political comedy into fodder for a national debate on freedom and values while real issues like police brutality and partisan gridlock continue to infect the republic – and conservatives ignore it.

To single out The Interview as some product of malaise is as simple-minded as the picture itself. There have been plenty of clever stoner comedies like Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989), and its even funnier sequel, Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991), and long before that there was Cheech & Chong's Up in Smoke (1978), which brought to light in a reefer haze the intersections between political and popular culture. But here's where there's a bigger problem with the debate around The Interview. If critical dialogue on the arts was still part of a larger public discourse that raised skepticism to its own art form, instead of being dictated largely by industry shills, or consumer reporters refining the Siskel & Ebert turn of the thumb, there wouldn't be a need to take sides on releasing The Interview. The practice of skepticism, of not taking things at face value, was always considered an asset when it came to questioning political parties, cultural policy and current events. But when it came to the arts, you were also playing with commerce, which upset those who wanted us to consume it. It used to be that if critics didn't behave and toe the line, you were deprived access to screenings and interviews with the artists (which would cause great concern for your editor who would wonder why everyone else was getting that big interview). Over the years, however, studios have found that by actually promising perks, rather than depriving them, they could get more out of the reviewer. If you were getting rewarded with those posh interviews and all this exclusive treatment, how could you possibly have anything bad to say? This is why when you turn on your television, or radio, you'll hear the local critics sounding as companionable as the weather reporter.

Diana Bang, Seth Rogen and James Franco.

There are a body of serious film critics who now occupy a desert island of which they have become their own audience, while consumer reporters (posing as critics) continually put their finger to the wind before commenting to the nation at large. There is no longer a common ground where cinephilia and smart populist reviewing define the terms for debating the merits of contemporary movies. While it was once understood that critics deliberately positioned themselves between the marketing executives, who wanted you to consume what they offered without question, and an audience that came with their voyeuristic appetites, there is no longer an open dialogue that includes people from all walks of life. The world of film criticism has become as polarized, and as class conscious, as current political punditry. The national gab, in general, has been turned over to fanboys (and girls) who lead with their enthusiasm (not a bad place to start), but avoid any hint of a strong opinion that might put them at odds with their fetish which marketers cater to and count on. Artists themselves are even adopting the language of the marketing folks. Fearing that they might not find an audience for their work, they resist real criticism and hope instead that the critic will simply judge what's there and not imagine what could have been. The debate of ideas which often raises the stakes on the arts has now been dimmed to the safety of innocuousness. And artists are aiding this madness by worrying about demographics rather than the sensibility expressed in the work. 

The Interview is becoming a bigger hit than it likely would have otherwise been. While the issues that put the movie on the shelf were real and were no part of a publicity stunt (Sony will take many months, if not years, repairing the damage caused by the leaking of confidential e-mails due to the hacking), the lack of any sensible dialogue on the picture has made the picture more an event than a movie to talk about. Marketing gurus everywhere must be sleeping comfortably tonight.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.  


  1. Great piece, kev. Thanks.

  2. Confirms what I've suspected all along. Thank you for removing the obligation I felt to actually see the movie.