Hack or no hack, The Interview proves to be an acquired taste

A poster for the movie "The Interview" is taken down by a worker, only for the decision to be reversed a week later with a limited theatre release. Photo: David Goldman / AP
A poster for the movie "The Interview" is taken down by a worker, only for the decision to be reversed a week later with a limited theatre release. Photo: David Goldman / AP

Massive computer hacking, threats of terrorist attacks and even a paucity of cinema seats ultimately didn’t completely scare American audiences away from the controversial comedy The Interview.

“It’s kind of historic, strangely enough for this ridiculous movie,” laughed Joseph Pagano, 41, a software developer from Texas who saw the film with his wife, Karina, while visiting New York.

The Sony Pictures film is essentially a “bro-com” – that is, a somewhat puerile comedy involving two young, not-too-intelligent American men overly fascinated with bodily excretions and sex – that also depicts the fictitious assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

For months, the Pyongyang government protested against the movie, calling it “an act of war”. As the scheduled Christmas Day opening neared, hackers attacked Sony’s computer system and anonymous emails warned cinema-owners to “remember September 11”. The four largest US cinema chains cancelled plans to show the film at 2,000 outlets.

After some scrambling, Sony managed to release the film on time to about 330 small art houses and online through iTunes, Xbox Live, YouTube and elsewhere.

Waiting at the Chelsea Village cinemas in Greenwich Village – one of only two sites where The Interview was playing in New York City – moviegoers seemed equally split between three motivations.

Some came as a statement in support of free speech, some were just curious and some would have seen the film regardless of the controversy because they like the stars Seth Rogen (who also co-directed) and James Franco. No one admitted to being nervous about the threats.

“I believe we as Americans should support our artistic endeavours and should show that we cannot be censored,” declared Louis DeCaro, 63, a part-time actor.

Carol London, a writer, was “curious to see it because of all the hullabaloo”.

To Linda Amrani, 63, vice-president of a printing distributor, and her son, Ben Weitz, 21, a university student, however, it was just another Rogen movie – the fourth they’ve seen together. “It’s a goofy thing we do,” Ms Amrani said.

The attendees also seemed split in their opinions of the big cinema chains’ decision to cancel their screenings.

“I think it was the right thing to do initially,” said Alex Au, 24, a business student. “They were trying to protect moviegoers.”

“Really?” challenged his companion, Samantha Putri, 23, a media studies student. “We have freedom of speech. Any­way, it’s just a movie. I don’t know why he [Kim Jong-un] is so sensitive about it.”

Many audience members praised Chelsea Village, which is not part of a chain, for its courage. It certainly seemed like a wise business move. Manager Lee Peterson said the 155-seat cinema had sold out for the first two days – a sales level that was “totally unprecedented”.

“In the back of our minds, we were concerned (about the threats of violence),” Mr Peterson said. But before the opening, he conferred with the FBI and police. “There weren’t any serious credible threats, nothing specific to respond to,” he said.

Sony is expected to lose money even though the screenings drew large crowds throughout the US, because of the limited number of screens. The company spent $79 million (Dh290m) to produce and market the film but took in less than $3 million in in-person ticket sales plus $15 million from online sales and rentals during the first three days, when receipts are usually at their peak. More­over, Sony faces several lawsuits from employees whose emails and personal details were hacked and publicly released.

Whatever the diplomatic implications, the critical reviews have been mixed to negative – in other words, typical of a Rogen-Franco film. AO Scott of The New York Times described it as “a goofy, strenuously naughty, hit-and-miss farce, propelled not by any particular political ideas but by the usual spectacle of male sexual, emotional and existential confusion”.

“I wouldn’t have come, except for the controversy,” said Janice, a 66-year-old social worker who would not reveal her last name. “I would have waited for it to come out on Netflix.”

Fran Hawthorne is a US-based writer who covers the nexus of business, finance and social policy

Published: December 31, 2014 04:00 AM

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