Friday, 12 November 2010
Finding the jokes in jihad
November 12, 2010
Michael Phillips Movie critic
A nervy jihadist version of "The Office," the British comedy "Four Lions" asserts the right of hit-and-run satirists to go too far. The film chronicles the petty, unstable group dynamics among a hapless terrorist cell of Islamic extremists located in Dorcaster, not far from Sheffield, England.
Material like this can hit its expiration date in a flash: All audiences need is one successful terrorist attack too close to home (we've had a few near-misses lately), and the film's comic targets suddenly strike some people as offensive. Whatever. (That's the value of "Due Date": It's offensive, but not in any time-sensitive or funny way.) "Four Lions" became a considerable success last year in England, where co-writer and director Chris Morris has a following. I think it's appalling in all the right ways. While its lingering aftertaste of ashes in the mouth is unmistakable, I'd argue that the subject warrants it.
If you saw and liked "In the Loop" (based on the British TV series "The Thick of It") the visual approach will be familiar here. "Four Lions" begins with Omar (Riz Ahmed), the sanest and most skeptical of the would-be terrorists, at home watching a homemade video ("the outtakes," he explains to his wife and son, "the bloopers"). He's about to get the call to travel to Pakistan and endure the rigors of a training camp, before returning to England for something big.
His comrades don't give him much confidence. There's Waj, whose devotion to Islamic extremism extends to the study of children's picture books (one is called "The Cat Who Went to Mecca"). The group's most insecure and overbearing live wire is an Anglo convert (Nigel Lindsay) whose anger is multidirectional. Counterintuitively he's plotting to bomb the local mosque. That, he reasons, will "radicalize the moderates" and begin the revolution. "Islam is cracking up," he bemoans. "We got women talking back. We got people playing stringed instruments. It's the End of Days!"
It is, and it isn't. As the rad four (plus one) progresses down a winding, dangerous road toward jihad, generally to self-injurious or worse results, "Four Lions" pushes its luck every which way. Director Morris gets away with murder, and the visual comic possibilities inherent in inept suicide bombings, simply by not treating these clowns either as pure caricature or with conventional empathy, but a droll combination thereof. When the terrorists (dressed variously as mutant ninja turtles and massive chickens) attempt to disrupt a fund-raising marathon, you may feel the joke has gone on a bit long. But it's a miracle Morris and fellow writers Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain sustain it as long as they do. Their onscreen ensemble of fervent dolts couldn't be better.