The day after Christmas I was turned away, twice, from sold-out shows at the Harkins Valley Art Theatre in Tempe. The film that was packing them in was, of course, The Interview, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s lowbrow farce involving a plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.
As you’ve possibly heard, a massive hack of Sony and hints of terrorist reprisals, both thought to have originated from North Korea, resulted in the decision, both by the studio and many theater chains, to cancel the movie’s Christmas Day release. For a couple of days it looked like The Interview might become a “lost” movie, but then Sony reconsidered, releasing the picture both to theaters and to video-on-demand. Perhaps with a thought to the safety of other audiences in the multiplexes, Harkins opened the film only at the chain’s one remaining free-standing single-screen house.
I had skipped the screening, so I decided to go to the Valley Art, but got to the box office too late, for two different shows, to get a ticket. No front row, no standing room. The prescient people who were lining up with pre-ordered tickets were mostly the younger sort one would expect at a movie like this—couples on dates, groups of frat-boy-looking buddies—but people of all ages were represented.
Anyway, I went back Saturday morning and saw the film, with a house that wasn’t full but was still surprisingly crowded for an early matinee. On the way in I was given a pin with a picture of stars Rogen and James Franco. It said “I [picture of a popped kernel of popcorn] FREEDOM! HARKINS THEATRES.”
I was puzzled at first by what this meant: I Pop Freedom? I Snack On Freedom? Slow on the take that I am, it took me a minute to realize that the popcorn kernel was vaguely heart-shaped. I Love Freedom. Indeed I do.
Grateful though I was for the souvenir, however, I declined to pin it on my shirt. Having failed, over the last few years, to take to the streets to demonstrate for or against any of a dozen issues I truly care about, it seemed a little much to congratulate myself for going to a silly comedy.
As for The Interview itself, it’s enjoyable enough of its kind, that kind being the self-consciously raunchy Hangover vein. It goes badly off the rails toward the end, but up until then it has some solid laughs and good performances. Franco plays it pretty broad as the nitwit TV interviewer who scores a sit-down with the tyrant and is pressed into service by the CIA to “take him out.” But Rogen, as Franco’s producer, carries the film with his boyishly commonsensical charm, and Randall Park is excellent as (and much handsomer than) Kim.
After it was over, as we were filing out, I heard an usher thank a middle-aged woman for coming, and she replied, very sincerely, “Thank you for having it. I really appreciate it.” If I had to guess, I’d guess that this lady, and quite a number of others in the audience, wouldn’t have thought of going to this particular movie if North Korea hadn’t told them they wouldn’t if they knew what was good for them.
Certainly I think that in the years since 9/11 fear of terrorism, and exploitation of that fear, and even an odd and carefully cultivated sense that one is being unpatriotic if one doesn’t show enough fear, has led our country into atrocious decisions, including ridiculous and probably futile encumbrances to our travel and recreation. I thought the initial decision to pull The Interview was wrong, for instance.
Having said that, I had sympathy for Sony’s cautious position, and even more so for that of the exhibitors. It’s easy for commentators like me with no real responsibility to decry the cancellation as craven, but if, God forbid, one bomb were to go off in a theatre, you can imagine the invective that would be poured on “Hollywood” for endangering people’s lives for a dumb movie. And if the release, and the packed houses, are a healthy step away from "letting the terrorists win," it’s no more than a baby step.
But I had to wonder if, at bottom, the long lines for The Interview not only weren’t about the movie itself, they weren’t even about politics or patriotism or standing up to terrorism. Maybe they were simply a gesture of early nostalgia for the increasingly gratuitous act of actually going to the movies. At any time this weekend, after all, I and just about anyone else at the Valley Art could have seen The Interview in the comfort of our homes, for a couple bucks less than the price of a ticket, and without the hassle of parking in downtown Tempe. Somehow, though, seeing the film in a gathering of strangers turned the experience from sitting through an average comedy into the kind of shared social experience that makes up many of our best movie memories.