'A regime that can't take a joke doesn't deserve to live'

Political editor Paul Wells on 'The Interview,' the movie at the heart of the global controversy

James Franco, left, and Seth Rogen in "The Interview." (AP Photo/Columbia Pictures, Sony)

James Franco, left, and Seth Rogen in “The Interview.” (AP Photo/Columbia Pictures, Sony)

To read Adrian Lee’s take on the film, click here.

Well, that has to count as my weirdest Christmas Eve in a long time. I was shopping for linguini and chickpeas when word arrived over Twitter that Sony would be releasing The Interview for home viewing. It took several more hours for the film to skip the border and be made available in Canada; I finished watching it shortly after midnight. Because I give and I give.

This is the movie Kim Jong Un didn’t want released, the one that led to the Sony leak and the perhaps-retaliatory North Korean Internet failure of earlier this week. It features James Franco and Seth Rogen as TV guys embroiled in a plot to assassinate Kim, and since this next plot point has been more or less consummately spoiled by the news coverage lately, I might as well admit they manage to take the big guy out. But not before Rogen and Franco have taken their fans through a truly impressive number of poo and fart jokes, a detailed explication of the term “camel toe” and a scene in which Franco and the actor playing Kim drive a tank around, blowing stuff up to the strains of a Katy Perry song. I found that last bit oddly exhilarating. I liked the whole thing, really, at least as much as the only other Rogen-Franco vehicle I’ve sat through, Pineapple Express.  Sue me. You want highbrow, go read The Walrus

To understand Kim’s rather less enthusiastic response, consider that (a) this film features simulated images of his head exploding; and (b) your typical North Korean film does not offer even low-brow good times. Consider these recent offerings at the Kaesong Plaza Octaplex, neither of which I’m making up: the 2008 documentary The Respected Comrade Supreme Commander Is Our Destiny, which, according to the state news agency “impressively deals with the immortal feats Kim Jong Il performed by developing the Korean People’s Army into invincible revolutionary armed forces;” and 2007’s The Schoolgirl’s Diary, about a teenager’s struggle to understand why Dad works long hours until he ends up winning awards for his devotion to the state.

So, even if Kim’s private palace is loaded up with the standard-issue dictator’s regulation stash of porn and Schwarzenegger epics, he may have limited context for processing a movie that features lines like “Did you just say Dong?” and “We don’t have a better plan, you’re going to have to stick it up your ass” along with the aforementioned exploding facsimile-Kim head. Totalitarian regimes, of which hardly any remain these days, are wired to deliver reverence to the leader; irreverence must be hard for Kim to understand, much less tolerate.

The rest of us, on the other hand, get to relax a bit. Freedom imposes no obligation on you to watch The Interview, any more than prudery should require you to shield your eyes. Sure, this movie features Franco getting laughs, or trying to, by pronouncing “Pyongyang” in a funny way, and its only two female characters are sexual targets for Franco and Rogen. But if anyone tries to tell you The Interview strikes some new low, tell them they need to get out more. Or just stay home and fire up the Apple TV.

How quickly they forget that 2008’s Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay depicted the boys getting high with a fake George W. Bush at the Crawford ranch; that 17 years earlier, one of the Naked Gun movies had Frank Drebin pulling a simulated Barbara Bush’s dress off; and that the 1962 Bob Hope/Bing Crosby vehicle The Road to Hong Kong featured an aging Dorothy Lamour exclaiming, “That’s the plot so far? I’d better hide you — from the critics!”

There is a mighty and ancient river of crap flowing through the centre of American popular culture, and anybody who would wish it away might want to consider that The Respected Comrade Supreme Leader Is Our Destiny was as unfailingly high-minded as it was, by all accounts, unwatchable. And a front for a slaughterhouse. Two recent books about the real North Korea have been made into films or are about to: Escape From Camp 14, about a man who crawled out of the country’s most notorious prison camp over the electrocuted body of another prisoner; and The Aquariums of Pyongyang, whose author wrote: “Hunger quashes man’s will to help his fellow man. I’ve seen fathers steal food from their own children’s lunchboxes.”

Of course those films are less threatening to the hereditary North Korean regime than Seth Rogen and James Franco, because you won’t see them. And because even if you did, horrific stories of oppression almost inevitably carry a kind of disgusted reverence that’s far removed from The Interview‘s gleeful disdain. Since this surreal mess began, learned commentators have wondered how a cheap comedy could provoke so much uproar. I intend no lofty compliment to Rogen and Franco when I say that only a cheap comedy could have done it. The Interview isn’t Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. It’s not even Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder. But twice near the end of it, I forgot myself and laughed out loud, hard. It felt good after all the handwringing of recent weeks. A regime that can’t take a joke doesn’t deserve to live. This one won’t, not forever, and when it falls, the horrors it reveals will make us glad we were able to have a laugh or two before it was done.


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