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

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.

The Interview

Director: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg
Cast: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park, Diana Bang
Distributor: Sony
Studio: Sony
US Release Date: 2015-02-17
"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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

19. Antwood: Sponsored Content (Planet Mu)

Sponsored Content is a noisy, chaotic, occasionally beautiful work with a dark sense of humor that's frequently deployed to get Antwood's point across. For instance, throughout the aforementioned "Disable Ad Blocker", which sounds mostly like the creepy side of Tangerine Dream's early '80s experimental output, distorted slogans and recognizable themes worm their way into the mix. "I'm Loving It", we hear at one point, the Sony PlayStation startup music at another. And then there's a ten-second clip of what sounds like someone getting killed in a horror movie. What is there to make of the coexistence of those sorts of samples? Probably nothing explicit, just the uneasiness of benign and instantly-recognizable brand content in the midst of harsh, difficult art. Perhaps quality must to some extent be tied to sponsorship. That Antwood can make this point amidst blasts and washes of experimental electronic mayhem is quite the achievement. - Mike Schiller

18. Bonobo - Migration (Ninja Tune)

Although Bonobo, a.k.a. Simon Green, has been vocal in the past about not making personality driven music, Migration is, in many respects, a classic sounding Bonobo record. Green continues to build sonic collages out of chirping synths, jazz-influenced drums, sweeping strings and light touches of piano but on Migration sounds more confident than ever. He has an ability to tap into the emotions like few others such as on the gorgeous "Break Apart" and the more percussive "Surface". However, Bonobo also works to broaden his sound. The electro-classical instrumental "Second Sun" floats along wistfully, sounding like it could have fit snugly onto a Erased Tapes compilation, while the precise and intricate "Grains" shows the more intimate and reflective side of his work. On the flipside, the higher tempo, beat driven tracks such as "Outlier" and "Kerala" perfectly exhibit his understanding of what works on the dance floor while on "Bambro Koyo Ganda" he even weaves North African rhythms into the fabric. Migration is a multifaceted album full of personality and all the better for it. - Paul Carr

17. Kiasmos - Blurred EP (Erased Tapes)

The Icelandic duo of Olafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen, aka Kiasmos, is a perfect example of a pair of artists coming from two very different musical backgrounds, finding an unmistakable common ground to create something genuinely distinctive. Arnalds, more known for his minimal piano and string work, and Rasmussen, approaching from a more electropop direction, have successfully explored the middle ground between their different musical approaches and in doing so crafted affecting minimalist electronic music. Blurred is one of the most emotionally engaging electronic releases of the year. The duo is working from a refined and bright sonic palette as they consummately layer fine, measured sounds together. It is an intricate yet unforced and natural sounding set of songs with every song allowed room to bloom gradually. - Paul Carr

16. Ellen Allien - Nost (BPitch Control)

BPitch boss and longtime lynchpin of the DJ scene in Berlin, Ellen Allien's seven full-length releases show an artist constantly reinventing herself. Case in point, her 2013 offering, LISm, was a largely beat-less ambient work designed to accompany an artsy dance piece, while its follow-up, 2017's Nost, is a hardcore techno journey, spiritually born in the nightclubs and warehouses of the early '90s. It boasts nine straight techno bangers, beautifully minimalist arrangements with haunting vocals snippets and ever propulsive beats, all of which harken back to a hallowed, golden, mostly-imagined age when electronic music was still very much underground, and seemingly anything was possible. - Alan Ranta

It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

Since 2003, Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they're still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.