Dear David, Amy, and Stephanie,
Last week I went out of my way to see The Interview on the big screen, for reasons that are still not quite clear to me. It was a raw, windy afternoon, and the closest theater showing the movie was an inconveniently located, singularly charmless multiplex in an unfamiliar neighborhood. And of course, the poorly reviewed Franco-Rogen joint has been available streaming online—where invitations to pony up a credit card and view it are now ubiquitous—since Sony decided to release the briefly controversial comedy simultaneously on the Web and in whatever theatrical outlets would have it. The truth is that a part of me—the naive part, fine—experienced the denouement of that whole comical-yet-ominous Sony hacking saga as something of an inspiring holiday fable. Like Christmas to Whoville, somehow or other The Interview came just the same, without ribbons or tags—or the box-office-making imprimatur of the major theater chains. And in the spirit of the season, I let myself believe that schlepping out to see it at one of the relatively few theaters that had called the North Koreans’ bluff somehow constituted a tiny victory over the Grinch—a 21st-century Frankengrinch composed of equal parts cyberterrorism, media censorship, corporate cowardice, and Kim Jong-un.
The warmth proffered by that vaguely patriotic conviction began to wear off not long into The Interview, which is a nasty-spirited and unusually laugh-free entry in the Franco-Rogenian canon—not to mention a hopeless shambles as a work of political satire. Like several of Rogen’s movies with his frequent collaborator Evan Goldberg (This Is the End, Pineapple Express), this strangely sentimental black comedy disintegrates in a bloody and incoherent third act. Dan Sterling’s script (from a story by Sterling, Rogen, and Goldberg) is never able to reconcile its comically humanized portrait of the North Korean dictator (played as a margarita-loving, daddy-issue-plagued bro by Randall Park) with its anarchic drive to blow the MF up—which, as the global community now knows, Franco and Rogen’s adventuring sleazeball journalists eventually do, taking the psychotic-yet-lovable dictator out with a rocket launched from a Soviet-era tank.
Of course, it’s not necessary for The Interview to be a savagely witty satire in order for its release to matter. The Sony hacks were an unconscionable breach of the privacy and potentially the physical security of thousands of employees of a global company, and the company’s initial decision to withhold the film completely for fear of terrorist reprisals would have sent a dystopic message about the future of movies—essentially, that whichever faceless international entity can hack into the network will be vetting the release calendar from now on. For all their dubiously ethical entertainment value (that one Channing Tatum email tho!), the weeks when that scandal was unfolding felt like an eerie re-immersion in the clammy oh-God-they’re-watching-us-right-now-aren’t-they paranoia of Citizenfour (a documentary whose mood of edgy menace I admired more than its functionality as either a work of journalism or a character portrait of Edward Snowden). The ability of The Interview to find its mediocre and obnoxiously sexist way onto screens large and small continues to strike me as a gift at the end of a sometimes-rough movie year—though my willingness to defend to the death your right to see it should in no way be interpreted as a recommendation.
I relay this uplifting holiday fable by way of welcoming the three of you to the Movie Club, where (I hope) we’ll gather like Whos around the blank space where the Christmas tree used to be—it’s just the right size to project movie clips on—and lift our voices to sing of this year’s surprises, disappointments, successes, and disasters. Let me start with a question for each of you, which you can expand on at length or just bat back to me and move on. For David Ehrlich: Rewatching your beautiful (truly) 12-minute montage counting down the year’s 25 best movies (wonderfully accompanied by music used in films this year), I was struck that your top three—Under the Skin, Inherent Vice, and The Grand Budapest Hotel—were all movies I felt a similar ambivalence about. In all three cases, I was at first dazzled by the fully imagined completeness of their very different aesthetic worlds—that huge pink wedding cake of an old-world hotel! The seductiveness with which Alien ScarJo led her victims into that black pool of deadly goo! Joaquin Phoenix’s poison-green Princess phone and mutton-chop sideburns!—and watched them in a state of enthralled anticipation for the first hour or more. But thereafter, much as I tried to sustain the love, I felt all three of these films disappearing under the weight of their own style, becoming so allusive and diffuse I lost track of the ambitious array of ideas at which the films were gesturing—about feminine sexuality as a construct in Under the Skin, about political corruption and the waning of the counterculture in Inherent Vice, about war and the cruelty of history in Grand Budapest. School me here. Am I just a subtlety-averse clod who needs movie meanings hammered into my head by Chris Hemsworth’s Thor?
For Stephanie Zacharek: I remember from a 2008 Movie Club discussion of Erick Zonca’s Julia that you were immune to the spell of Tilda Swinton in that movie and in others—if I recall, you tended to find her performances outsized and self-regarding, overly dependent on the viewer’s familiarity with the external-to-the-film phenomenon of Swinton’s forbidding personal fabulousness. But I notice that Only Lovers Left Alive—the first Jim Jarmusch movie that’s spoken to me for years, in which Swinton and Tom Hiddleston play a pair of dissolute vampires in love over the centuries—made your Top 10 list this year. So I wanted to hear you on the state of Tilda in 2014, especially given how many opportunities she had this year to seriously Swinton out—not just as an ennui-filled bloodsucker, but as the elderly mistress of Ralph Fiennes’ persnickety concierge in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel or (in a performance even Tilda-revering me can admit was overdone) as a sadistic buck-toothed henchwoman in Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer.
And Amy Nicholson: Your Top 10 list, arranged in the form of an awards lineup (for best picture, best comedy, best debut, and so on) also has The Grand Budapest Hotel at No. 1. Feel free to join David in helping Stephanie and me—both of us Wes Anderson agnostics in different ways—to understand why this particular film seems to you one of the jewels in Anderson’s crown, and whether you think it represents a new turn in this sui generis filmmaker’s work. But also: Please talk more about Neighbors, the Nicholas Stoller–directed frat-boys-vs.-young-couple comedy that you named to your list, and about the general state of women in comedy these days. I liked Neighbors quite a bit too, but it depressed me that a movie had to depart so slightly from the dude-heavy comedy brand exemplified by The Interview and its brethren in order to register as faintly revisionist, even feminist. Should we look to Rose Byrne’s one-of-the-guys hot mom and wife, however disarming, as our funny-lady future? Is there hope for more mainstream comedies in 2015 that don’t just throw a woman into the male-centric mix, but are about women—and maybe even, God forbid, directed by one?
Over to you, Amy. To quote the title of one of Preston Sturges’ more underrated comedies, I remain—