We live in a time when even frivolous pop-culture touchstones are blown out of proportion, from Grumpy Cat’s pout to Kim Kardashian's booty. But not in a million years did I imagine the R-rated lunacy of “The Interview” would become the flashpoint for a viral war on free speech, democracy and America itself.
Starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, “The Interview’s” crude, rude, Three Stooges-styled comedy is screwball at best. Characterizing it as satire elevates the creative execution of the film's very silly faux assassination of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un far beyond what it merits.
On Wednesday, Sony canceled its Christmas Day release of “The Interview,” which was dreamed up by co-directors Rogen and Evan Goldberg, with screenwriter Dan Sterling. What moviegoers are missing is a nonsensical film, more in intellectual league with “Dumb and Dumber To” than even the pair’s previous “This Is the End.” It’s not some Philip Roth-ian or Stephen Colbert-ish political lampooning whose suppression we would promptly and proudly protest.
And that's always the difficulty with this sort of warfare. We often fight for an abstract principle that is righteous when the concrete embodiment of it may feel anything but noble: Larry Flynt fighting to distribute and disseminate a publication deemed by many to be pornography. Or the Aryan Nation petitioning to parade down Idaho City's main street.
As uncomfortable as we might feel about their causes and lifestyles, we have a long tradition of protecting the rights of our rogues and renegades. Our Rogens too. Whether they seem like monsters or merely raunchy adolescent boys, they are ours. We can pick on them, but you, Kim Jong Un, cannot.
And yet here we are, allowing a foreign dictator to dictate to us.
Now the film, which might — or might not — have broken even at the box office, seems destined for a Sony vault, never to see the light of day unless the studio relents to pressure from disappointed moviegoers, including President Obama. Frankly, given the digital breaches we’ve seen at Sony so far, I expect underground dealers will be selling it on Pyongyang street corners next week.
If North Koreans bothered to actually watch “The Interview,” even they might ask: A cyber attack on a movie studio over this? Threats of 9/11-level attacks on theaters that planned to play it? FBI and Homeland Security manpower tied up by it? Daily White House briefings?
The entire international debacle represents a level of absurdity so extreme, so surreal, that it wouldn't make it past a “Saturday Night Live” table read.
After watching the film last week — in the safety of a private media screening for media — I walked out thinking two things:
First, has the studio provided a 24/7 security detail for actor Randall Park? Because he delivers a scathing parody of Kim that just might be the finest and funniest possible.
I next thought about the persona of the real-life Kim. Not since Hitler has there been a world leader so ripe for comic ripping and shredding. There are Kim’s infamous ankle issues. The haircut that really does look as if the Stooges’ Moe was the inspiration. His denial of reality, when it suits him. His absolutist style of ruling the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which the rest of us refer to as North Korea. His obsession with celebrity culture, which, by the way “The Interview” also has in its sights.
Here's the film’s setup. Franco portrays Dave Skylark, a smarmy TV host for one of those distasteful celebrity tabloid shows. Once a hit, “Skylark Tonight” is hemorrhaging ratings. Aaron Rapaport (Rogen) is his producer, a smart guy who dreams of producing serious news and instead is left with the fluffiest of fluff.
When Dave reads that “Skylark Tonight” is one of Kim’s favorite shows, they score a face-to-face interview. It’s the kind of newscast coup that could save “Skylark Tonight” and Aaron's reputation.
The CIA has another kind of coup in mind. Agent Lacey (Showtime’s “Masters of Sex's” Lizzy Caplan) enlists Aaron and Dave in an assassination plot. It involves a slow-acting poison on a little sticky strip that could be transferred to Kim by merely shaking his hand. They would be gone before he would be.
Using that fundamental comedy tenet — that the simplest action can trigger a large-scale overreaction — everything about Dave and Aaron's trip to interview Kim goes haywire. As we have learned from the leaked Sony emails, rather than slow-working poison, the end comes with a very messy exploding head, imagery that was toned down by already-nervous executives. What appears on screen is not as graphic as that description sounds — there is a lot of smoke and fire helping to obscure the image — but I can confirm that this is indeed how things end for Kim in the film.
The real-world cyber-terrorists, the so-called Guardians of Peace, tied their reason for going after the film to the assassination ending. But after seeing the movie, I suspect the true fear was ridicule. Because the ridicule “The Interview” manages is far more effective in landing blows than the assassination fantasy. In fact, that's an actual plot point.
Ironically, Park's portrayal of the character Kim humanizes him while skewering him. Had the film come out, Park's performance is the one I would have singled out for praise, Franco's the one I panned. And not merely because Dave Skylark is so unlikable, though he is the quintessential Ugly American. Franco simply fails to make Skylark nearly as believable as Park makes Kim. Weakness against strength never plays well on screen.
Or in real life.
I admit that in all this insanity, there have been moments I have felt afraid.
About those emails. I got them.
I didn't realize it at first. My email is constantly overwhelmed by all manner of spam — the Brain Mapping Society's updates, the property deals in Hong Kong. And I was distracted — there were nominations for the Golden Globes and SAG Awards to consider, the crush of year-end movies to see, reviews to write ... including one on “The Interview.”
But as the cyber assault on Sony and the film took over the entertainment beat, and then the national news cycle, the cryptic messages turning up in my in-box from “hushmail.com” began to register.
Little more than a link and a line identifying the sender, Dec. 11th's email started like this: “Hi, I am a mem of guard-of-pis.” Yes, that seems about right.
In the hours since the film was officially sentenced to obscurity, I've spent a lot of time thinking about “The Interview” and the implications of the decision to bury it. As fervently as I believe in free speech, and having spent a career in newspapers made possible and protected by that right, I did ask myself: Is “The Interview” the one to fight for, to risk even one's life for?
On a purely aesthetic level, “The Interview” delivers its fair share of laughs. But it is not a great movie. And I certainly would not want a single person harmed because he or she wanted to see it. Or a filmmaker silenced for thinking up the idea. Or a studio punished for making it.
As absurd as “The Interview” is, the attack against it is more so. The assassination in the movie was fake, the killing of this film is chillingly real.
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this post suggested that Kim Jong Un's haircut seemed inspired by the Three Stooges' character Larry. It was, of course, the Stooges' Moe who should have been cited in the reference.