The good news is that “The Interview” will have little impact on American public opinion vis-à-vis North Korea since it is such a flaccid work, unsure whether to make fun of its co-stars or to deliver Reagan-era sermons on the evils of Communism. It succeeds at neither of these competing goals.
The bad news is that it is one of the lamest comedies imaginable, a formulaic imitation of films like “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” and “Zoolander” that feature a leading character of monumental stupidity. The “jokes” boil down to the main character saying or doing idiotic things. It is, of course, possible to make a comedy featuring such a character—the Peter Sellers Pink Panther films being a prime example. But the Pink Panther films revolve around ingenious set-ups where the stupidity of Inspector Clouseau is put to good use.
A year after leaving the Trotskyist movement, I took a writer’s workshop at NYU that was largely a waste of time. But one thing the instructor told us rang true. He said that comedy was much more difficult to write than serious literature. I complete agree with this based on the evidence of Hollywood comedies over the past 25 years or so. Blake Edwards, the director and screenwriter for the Pink Panther films, illustrates comedy done with intelligence. Edwards started off as an actor in the 1940s in films directed by John Ford, William Wyler and Otto Preminger, three masters from the Golden Age of American film. By contrast Seth Rogen, who directed and wrote the screenplay for “The Interview”, acted in Judd Apatow films, a major contributor to the epidemic of unfunny comedies Hollywood cranks out on an assembly-line that are marketed to 15-year old boys who can’t get enough fart, tits and penis jokes.
Rogen plays Aaron Rapaport, the producer of “Skylark Tonight”, a soft news show of the sort that might appear on MTV. James Franco, who has been directed to mug in every scene to the point where you can barely stand another minute of his eyebrow-wagging and hand-flailing histrionics, plays Dave Skylark. It is the same sort of overwrought performance that made “Spring Breakers” unwatchable. Along with Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio, Franco is now one of Hollywood’s go-to guys for scenery-chewing renditions of “colorful” characters.
In the entire film, there is not a single word that comes out of Skylark’s mouth that can be mistaken for what an actual person might say. Like Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy in the Apatow film that obviously inspired “The Interview”, Franco’s character is intended as satire—a TV newsman who does not understand how foolish he appears. If you ever want to see how such a character can be developed skillfully, I’d refer you to the Mary Tyler Show that played on CBS from 1970 to 1977. It was a comedy based on a TV news show that featured Ted Baxter, a vain and pompous news reader who was close enough to the real thing (think David Gregory) to work as satire. Rogen was not writing satire; he was writing burlesque and a rather crude one at that.
As you probably know, since the film’s Kim Jong-un is supposedly a fan of “Skylark Tonight”, he invites Rapaport and Skylark to come to North Korea to interview him. When the CIA learns that they are given this opportunity, they recruit Skylark to poison him with ricin. But in the course of spending time with the dictator, Skylark decides after the fashion of Dennis Rodman that he is a nice guy after all and backs out of the assassination plot. It is only when he discovers that a grocery store near Kim’s palace is filled with fake fruit and vegetables that he decides to go through with the plot.
Once Skylark is back on board for the mission of killing Kim, the film descends into completely idiotic action sequences where the North Korean military and the two newsmen (plus a woman that has been assigned to be their handler but who is secretly an enemy of the regime) engage in machine gun battles out of the Sylvester Stallone/Chuck Norris playbook. It is as slapdash and uninspired as the preceding more “comical” scenes. After Skylark and Rapaport commandeer a tank and blow Kim’s helicopter out of the sky, the film proceeds to a happy ending. It is this conclusion that supposedly angered North Korea sufficiently to organize the Sony hack that has been in the news.
There are those who regard “The Interview” as a virtual conspiracy mounted by Sony, the State Department and the Rand Corporation. In a December 23rd interview with Democracy Now, U. Cal/Santa Cruz professor Christine Hong states:
You know, what’s interesting to me about this is the fact that if you actually look at what the Sony executives did, they consulted very closely with the State Department, which actually gave the executives a green light with regard to the death scene. And they also consulted with a RAND North Korea watcher, a man named Bruce Bennett, who basically has espoused in thesis that the way to bring down the North Korean government is to assassinate the leadership. And he actually stated, in consulting with Sony about this film, that this film, in terms of the South Korean market, as well as its infiltration by defector balloon-dropping organizations into North Korea, could possibly get the wheels of a kind of regime change plot into motion. So, in this instance, fiction and reality have a sort of mirroring relationship to each other.
Frankly, I don’t think that the North Koreans have much to worry about. This film is a limp and toothless enterprise that would have a lot less impact on the north than the far more sophisticated films that the south has cranked out over the years, especially those that appeal to their longing for national unity and peace. If anything, the liberal presidency of Kim Dae-jung, whose overtures to the north were a departure from the hardline anti-Communism of previous governments and whose initiatives were reflected in “reconciliation” films such as the great “Joint Security Area”, would be much more of a threat to the status quo in the north—and for that matter the reactionary Chaebol-dominated neoliberalism of the south.
I suspect that revulsion in the south over the failure of the conservative government now in power to get to the root of the corruption that allowed an inadequately regulated ferry to sink and cost the lives of 300 young people, will eventually return a liberal government to power. Of course, as is the case everywhere, including the USA, such governments are not likely to redress the class inequalities that allow the Chaebols to dominate Korean society.
In a CounterPunch article on Korean War movies that I wrote last year, I touch upon some of the political issues that the north and the south are grappling with. They are issues that are far more important to how things unfold in the coming years than a work of such crowning stupidity like “The Interview”:
My introduction to Korean films and the changing political landscape in the south was Lee Chang-dong’s 2000 masterpiece “Peppermint Candy”. Not only was it a fearless assault on South Korean repression of strikes and student protests in the 1980s, it was my pick for best narrative film that year leaving Academy Award winner “Gladiator” in the dust. If Hong Kong cinema had become increasingly formulaic by then, South Korea picked up the slack and turned into by far the most fertile ground for new cinema in the world.
Chang-dong Lee went on to write and direct other masterpieces, including “Secret Sunshine” and “Poetry”, but even more importantly to serve as a symbol of progress in the south and reconciliation with the north in his capacity as Minister of Culture and Tourism in 2003-2004 under reformer President Roh Moo-hyun. Roh continued the policies of Kim Dae-jung who ruled from 1998 to 2003. Widely regarded as the Nelson Mandela of South Korea, Kim instituted the “Sunshine Policy” that sought to bring the two halves of the country closer together.
Roh’s presidency was marred by personal corruption and a willingness to make concessions to neoliberalism, especially the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. in 2007. Despite this, Roh remained committed to rapprochement with the north. In 2011 Wikileaks released an American diplomatic cable to South Korea calling attention to Roh’s concerns over the mistreatment of North Korea.
Economic stagnation under Roh led to him being ousted in 2007 by Lee Myung-bak, the CEO of Hyundai, one of South Korea’s top chaebols. One year into his presidency, Lee trashed the Sunshine Policy and warned the north that he would end economic cooperation unless it abandoned its nuclear weapons program. Elected in 2012, South Korea’s first female president Park Geun-hye has been following Lee’s policies to the letter–hence the current crisis.