Just how far over the line does Seth Rogen and James Franco's new film go?

By Michael Miller
Updated December 17, 2014 09:30 AM
Credit: Zuma

Cyber attacks, terrorist threats and international secret organizations – the hubbub surrounding the pre-release of Seth Rogen and James Franco‘s controversial new movie, The Interview, has all the makings of a James Bond flick.

The raunchy comedy – based on the fictional assassination of real-life (and still very much alive) North Korean dictator Kim Jung-Un – may be the cause of the crippling computer hack of the film’s studio, Sony Pictures Entertainment. A group of cyber terrorists calling themselves the Guardian of Peace claim responsibility for the attacks, and have said they will do everything in their power to block the movie’s release – from embarrassing studio execs to blowing up movie theaters.

The world will be full of fear, the G.O.P. said in a statement Tuesday morning. Remember the 11th of September 2001.” In response, Rogen and Franco – who have defended Sony in the wake of email leaks – have canceled their publicity tour.

North Korea denies a connection to the group, but the country has made it clear its no fan of the movie, branding it “an act of war.” Back in June, the North Koreans promised a “resolute and merciless response” if the film hit theaters, in a statement attributed to the official KCNA news agency.

What’s clear is that The Interview was causing trouble long before the hacking scandal made it national news. Inside Sony, some executives expressed misgivings about the movie before its release. According emails leaked from the hack, Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai asked for the content to be toned down – something he had reportedly never done in his two-year stint as president.

Sensitivities may have run high initially because Sony is a Japanese company, burdened with a complex legacy when it comes to Korea. Relations between Japan and both North and South Korea are complicated by a history of oppression that includes the bloody Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula in World War II.

In an interview with the The New York Times, Rogen touched on the back and forth. “There was a moment where they were like, ‘They have threatened war over the movie. You kill him [Kim Jong Un]. Would you consider not killing him?’ And we were like, nope.”

Despite controversy, Sony executives have stood firmly by the film. And studio head Amy Pascal has confirmed The Interview will be released as scheduled on Dec. 25.

So does a satirical buddy comedy from the guys who brought us comedies such as This Is the End and Pineapple Express really deserve to be the cause of a massive cyber crime and an international incident?

Hollywood insiders who have seen the parody are divided in their opinions about it. At early screenings, many winced at jokes they found to be poor taste, while others found its crass humor hilarious. Few would have predicted it would be making headlines in a season crowded with prestigious award season fare.

Though movies often are edited and tweaked between their early screenings and release, one viewer found that The Interview “definitely crossed some lines. You know you shouldn’t laugh because sometimes it’s horrible. But it’s still funny.”

That’s what Rogen and Franco were going for. The movie follows a vapid tabloid TV reporter (Franco) and his producer (Rogen) who land an interview with the North Korean dictator (Randall Park, who stars in the new ABC sitcom Fresh off the Boat) because he is a fan of their show. The pair are pressed into service by the CIA and made part of a conspiracy to assassinate the despot.

Politically Incorrect

Along the way, the movie unabashedly breaks politically correct taboos – in addition to lampooning North Korea’s “Dear Leader,” its Asian stereotypes and tasteless humor have not endeared it to critics.

“A terror attack to any audience with a limited tolerance for anal penetration jokes,” noted a review in Variety. “An evening of cinematic waterboarding awaits.”

But whatever happens to The Interview at the box office, the stir it has caused has arguably made it the most talked-about movie of the year. That’s something its makers never saw coming.

“I don’t know if the hacking honestly is because of our movie,” Rogen told the New York Times. “I know that has been the center of a lot of media attention lately. It is weird because we just wanted to make a really funny, entertaining movie and the movie itself is very silly and wasn’t meant to be controversial in any way.”