Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s The Interview finally snuck into UK cinemas last Friday, arriving to a fairly muted reception – it just scraped a place in the UK top ten in last weekend’s box figures. It seems somewhat surprising it didn’t perform better, given the seismic controversy which preceded its US release back in December.
To recap, the film – in which Rogen and James Franco play the producer and host respectively of an American talk show who are sent to assassinate the president of North Korea – met with vitriolic objection from the North Korean government from the moment it was put into production, culminating in Pyongyang calling the film an “act of war” and threatening the US with a “merciless response.”
Back then the whole thing seemed like at best a storm in a teacup or at worst a cynical attempt by Sony to bait controversy and put their film more into the public eye. If the whole thing was at least partially a publicity tactic, it had backfired considerably by the time Sony’s databases were hacked in response to The Interview and a group calling themselves the Guardians of Peace threatened to target screenings of the film in violent acts (this was just one of the promises they made in a seemingly slightly confused email which also declared; “All the world will denounce the SONY”). Virtually every American multiplex chain refused to show the film, more or less forcing the studio to temporarily pull the plug on its release.
So now that the film has been released officially, bearing in mind it had already been widely available on US streaming services and pirating sites for a while which probably made a contribution to its modest box office performance, was it worth all the hype? Well, while the film isn’t apolitical by any means, it doesn’t achieve or even really attempt the satiric bite of say, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator or Chris Morris’ Four Lions.
The film’s closest stablemate in the barn of satire is obviously Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America, but although both films mine the infamous eccentricities of North Korean leaders (Kim Jong-il and his son Kim Jong-un respectively) for comedy, The Interview shows none of the manic invention of Parker and Stone’s effort. Where the puppet-based comedy was incomparable for its surreal tone and musical numbers, Rogen and Goldberg’s film is very much of a piece with their previous output (Pineapple Express, Bad Neighbours, This Is The End); packed with jokes about dicks, balls and butts with a side-order of homoerotic buddy comedy.
It’s true that outside of two or three scenes the film hardly seems satirical at all, and Goldberg himself is on the record saying he sees it more as a “big, silly movie” and that nobody should “get bogged down thinking it’s a political movie, because it’s not.” Indeed, the film actually does a better job of sending up the vacuous world of celebrity in its early scenes, a la This Is The End, than it does in scoring any serious political points.
It seems more important than ever to recognise that ‘good taste’ shouldn’t dictate what can and can’t be a target for satire, even if this film mostly misses the mark.
All of which begs the oft-repeated question: should Rogen, Goldberg and Franco have even set the film in North Korea – a place where real people suffer every day and not an obvious setting for knockabout comedy – in the first place? The answer is yes, of course; it was an artistic decision on their part and one they had every right to make. In a world recovering from the Charlie Hebdo attacks, it seems more important than ever to recognise that ‘good taste’ shouldn’t dictate what can and can’t be a target for satire, even if this film mostly misses the mark.
That said, The Interview may yet go on to become an important milestone in the ongoing dialogue about the situation in North Korea. The Cinema For Peace Foundation announced this week that it will be sending DVD copies of the film above the 38th parallel, with foundation chairman Jaka Bizilj summing up the group’s position on the film during a press conference at the Berlin film festival: “For us, it’s not a question of whether it’s good or bad; no matter if you like something or not, you have to fight for freedom to exercise this art.”
Images: Colombia Pictures