James Franco and Seth Rogen Meet 'Call of Duty' in 'The Interview'

by Brice Ezell

16 March 2015

Even if Sony had pulled off a successful marketing gambit with The Interview, they couldn't have masked that this is a genuinely unfunny film.
 
cover art

The Interview

Director: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg
Cast: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park, Diana Bang

(Sony)
US DVD: 17 Feb 2015

“The biggest story in Hollywood this year was when North Korea threatened an attack if Sony Pictures released The Interview, forcing us all to pretend we wanted to see it.”
—Amy Poehler, in her 2015 Golden Globes opening monologue with Tina Fey.

In the PopMatters article, “The Interview and Free Speech: A Plausible Alternative”, I argued that “Because of the film’s plot, its direct response from North Korea, and now its cancellation, the initial fate suffered by The Interview will always be seen as an act of aggression on the part of North Korea. As a consequence, the film has now become a martyr for free speech, a victim at the hands of the totalitarian tactics of the North Korean government.”

As it turns out, I was wrong. Well, mostly wrong.

The Interview depicts an attempt to assassinate Kim Jong Un by two Americans. Unsurprisingly, controversy followed. After Sony initially cancelled the film’s 25 December 2014 release date following a major hacking of the company’s computer databases and several threats of violence from a shadow group calling itself “Guardians of Peace”, critics and many from the motion picture industry came out in strong opposition to the decision. These detractors argued that by pulling the picture, Sony was setting a troubling standard for free speech, wherein one need only a megaphone and a bomb in order to silence a work of art.

At first, I thought these concerns were valid but missing the mark. To me, Sony’s decision to cancel the 25 December release date was a calculated one, designed to build up hype for the movie so as to generate more buzz and eventually revenue. In doing so, the company would also link The Interview with a nationalistic narrative, wherein the United States overcomes the thug-like actions of the North Korean regime with the power of edgy satire.

Just a mere three months after the cancellation of the 25 December release, the evidence that would validate my initial prediction is out in the open. If one merely looks at the branding of The Interview‘s home video release, the claim I make above certainly looks correct. The Blu-ray disc of the film is given the subtitle “Freedom Edition”. In a special video introduction to the disc, directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg give the viewer a big pat on the back for buying the movie: “If you’re watching this,” Rogen says, “It means you’re a goddamn fucking American hero.” Clearly, Sony has latched on to the most obvious narrative to arise from the controversy surrounding the film: No matter what North Korea says, they can’t silence our freedom of speech! But despite picking the obvious narrative, Sony fumbled the play completely.

My initial prediction held that Sony would release The Interview, just not on 25 December 2014. Instead, it would wait until a critical mass had built up, at which point it would release it onto a public clamoring for this nearly censored flick. The building of that tension, combined with the narrative of America “beating” North Korea, would prove a formula for box office success akin to Rogen and James Franco’s previous comedies (Neighbors and This is the End).

However, Sony didn’t let the tension build at all. The studio gave the movie a limited release on 25 December, the day after it was released on several video-on-demand online outlets (YouTube and Google Play) for a $6 charge. On 24 January 2015, the film was available for stream to customers of Netflix. Finally, just over a month and a half after the limited 25 December release, The Interview is now available to own on DVD and Blu-ray. Rather than letting the tea kettle boil until it screams, Sony chose to crank up the heat as high as possible and let the steam come rushing out in a flurry of released energy. For proof, one need only look to the numbers.

Rogen and Franco are proven box-office stars. One would be correct in being stunned, then, at The Interview‘s paltry $6,105,175 USD box office take, only 15 percent of its budget of $42 million dollars. With international box office receipts, that $6 million figure bumps up to 11.3 million, roughly 27 percent of its budget. Fortunately for Sony, following an extremely successful video-on-demand campaign the movie netted 40 million additional dollars.

Nevertheless, when combined those numbers add up to 53 million, a paltry profit compared to what Sony would reasonably expect to make from Rogen and Franco. With a $32 million dollar budget, This is the End made $126 million; Neighbors raked in a staggering $268 million worldwide from a mere $18 million dollar budget.

Ultimately, though, the relative dearth of money made by The Interview can’t ultimately be chalked up to Sony’s failure to let momentum build properly, although that is a significant factor. Even if the studio had done a good job marketing it in this way, it couldn’t get past one fact: The Interview is just not a good movie. In my aforementioned article on the ostensible cancellation of the 25 December release, without having seen the film I suggested “it might be best described as the plot to the next Call of Duty game… starring James Franco and Seth Rogen.” As it turns out, this is one of the few predictions from my initial article that holds true.

With a formula that can best be described as half dick jokes, half over-the-top violence, The Interview is an overwhelmingly dumb piece of work. Although Rogen and Goldberg’s This is the End is chock full of similarly genitalia-obsessed humor, its brand of satire and meta-commentary on celebrity help cut the frequent crudities. By contrast, The Interview takes an absurd premise—that the CIA would commission two television personalities (Rogen and Franco) to assassinate a head of state—and piles absurdity and lack of subtlety atop it in the hopes that the laughs just keep coming. Not biting and incisive enough to be satire and not creative enough to qualify as good lampoonery, The Interview is as much a creative flop as it is a commercial one.

Of course, even if the movie were successful in its ambitions, it’s hard to look past how insensitively it handles its deeply sensitive subject material. Never mind the fact that the North Korean situation is an extremely tense one, wherein millions of people are brainwashed and subjugated by a megalomaniacal dictator who controls a country with nuclear capabilities. Never mind the fact that the extensive record of Western interventions and assassinations does not paint a successful picture. Those responsible for The Interview decided that (spoiler) a true humorous spectacle involves two foul-mouthed TV stars shooting Kim Jong Un out of the air with a tank, which would in real life lead to a power vacuum of considerable proportions.

As Slant‘s Chris Cabin put it, the movie “is all talk, a sheep in wolf’s clothing, which makes its frivolous politics all the more odious.” The only real critique of Kim Jong Un’s government in this film is that he is manipulative and deceitful, and neither Rogen nor Franco communicates that banal fact in an artful enough way such that the story constitutes a fresh look at this ever-pressing global issue. The most memorable scene in the film, which rips a page straight out of the playbook from Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (which also stars Franco), features Franco’s talk show host character bringing Kim Jong Un to tears by singing Katy Perry’s “Firework” a cappella on an international broadcast. It’s the one instance where the absurdity hits so high a peak that one can’t help but laugh. Sadly, that is but one moment in a nearly two-hour picture.

If one is to be charitable about Rogen and Goldberg’s supposed satirical intent, he might note that The Interview humorously skewers the “basketball diplomacy” model, based on the famed visits to North Korea by former NBA player Dennis Rodman. Like Rodman, Rogen and Franco’s characters (theoretically) represent a foolhardy attempt on the part of the US to change policy in North Korea—in this case, extremely so. If that was the case, however, such satire is clearly undermined by the cloying patriotism that was and still is being used to promote the movie. Not only did Rogen and Goldberg make a flick wherein they get to kill Kim Jong Un in the most spectacular way possible, but they also have a massive ad campaign declaring, “We didn’t let North Korea censor us!”

Given how few of The Interview‘s jokes land, it’s hard to sympathize with that latter claim. One can still argue the merits of deciding to pull a film from its release date on free speech grounds, but here the speech is so inconsequential that the narrative of “In Franco and Rogen We Trust” feels like a cheapening of the true cause of free speech. To be sure, Rogen and Franco have the right to make as many movies stuffed with as many sex jokes as they like, and they should face no threats for doing so. But one should be under no illusions: The Interview resides nowhere near the great pantheon of political satires. Hell, it’s not even adjacent to the realm of good comedy.

By giving in to public outcry at the cancellation of The Interview‘s Christmas 2014 release, Sony deflated any suspense that could have worked to its benefit in selling the movie. Then again, based on how lackluster the final product is, it’s likely that any built-up steam would have ultimately just become smoke for the mirrors.

Included on the “Freedom Edition” Blu-ray of The Interview are a wealth of extras, including deleted and alternate scenes, bloopers, and several featurettes, one of which is a randomly placed parody of Naked and Afraid, starring Rogen and Franco. Although plentiful, these extras will only prove of value to those invested in the flick itself, as all of the humor is merely an extension of what is seen in the main feature.

The Interview

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