Friday, 19 November 2010

The Gang That Couldn’t Bomb Straight

Published: October 22, 2010
New York Times (All Rights Reserved, Copyright)

IN “Four Lions,” the first feature directed by the British comedian Chris Morris, a group of British Muslim fundamentalists hatch a plot to blow themselves up during the London Marathon. From this decidedly unfunny premise the film finds multiple occasions for laughter.

It opens with jihadist-video bloopers and uses the firing of a rocket launcher for a slapstick punch line. One of the gang argues that bombing a mosque is the best way to radicalize Muslims and tests his theory by punching himself in the face. The would-be terrorists communicate on a children’s chat site called Puffin Party, shake their heads from side to side to avoid being identified in closed-circuit video footage and attempt to thwart surveillance efforts by swallowing their SIM cards.

Nearly a decade after the Sept. 11 attacks, terrorism and the war on terror are still more or less off limits for screen comedy, and the handful of exceptions — Albert Brooks’s “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World,” the stoner farce “Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay,” the militarist spoof “Team America: World Police” — have been relatively circumspect, dealing mainly with Western attitudes and avoiding the specter of the Other.

But Mr. Morris, 45, an institution in British television comedy since the mid-1990s, has no fear of hot-button issues. His most distinctive talent may be for tackling nominally controversial material in a way that reveals the irrational roots of the controversy.

Equal parts social satirist, media critic and surrealist prankster, he created — with Armando Iannucci, the director of “In the Loop” (2009) about the diplomatic maneuvers that led to an Iraq-like war — the influential fake-news BBC program “The Day Today,” which was billed as “Facts x Importance = News” and anticipated the likes of “The Daily Show.” Mr. Morris followed that up with “Brass Eye” (1997), a mock newsmagazine show that specialized in the elaborate duping of gullible public figures (as Sacha Baron Cohen would go on to do with his various alter egos).

A tall, imposing man with a prominent mop of curly hair, Mr. Morris has earned a reputation for elusiveness. The truth of the matter, he explained, is that he has simply avoided speaking to the news media when they are the primary targets of his satire. In an interview in Manhattan last month, fresh off a plane from London, he proved an affable and erudite conversationalist.

“It’s an impatience with easy, short-cut thinking,” he said, describing the impetus for “Four Lions,” which opens in New York on November 5. Starring Riz Ahmed (who appeared in Michael Winterbottom’s “Road to Guantánamo”) as the beleaguered cell leader, the movie is the first release of Drafthouse Films, the new distribution arm of the Alamo Drafthouse cinema in Austin, Tex.

It is no surprise that Mr. Morris, with his keen appreciation for the comedy of faulty logic (and particular contempt for fear-mongering rhetoric), would be drawn to the big red flag of fundamentalist terrorism, which tends to deter rational thought among adherents and outsiders alike. “Resistance groups don’t seem to be outside our understanding,” he said. “But if it’s a movement that ends in blowing yourself up, that seems to flatten all the understanding that would be available.”

In a recent phone interview Mr. Iannucci described Mr. Morris’s knack for confrontation as a “natural tendency to head towards the fire.” Mr. Morris remains most notorious in Britain for a “Brass Eye” episode that skewered the moral outrage and alarmism around pedophilia. He recruited unsuspecting celebrities to compare the genetic makeup of pedophiles to that of crabs, and to warn of toxic fumes from computer keyboards that make child targets more suggestible. The show drew more than 1,000 viewer complaints and a public scolding from cabinet ministers; The Daily Mail branded Mr. Morris the “Most Hated Man in Britain.”

Mr. Morris said he did not conceive of “Four Lions” as a provocation: “It wasn’t about getting the least likely subject for a comedy and then making a film about it, but the other way around.” After 9/11 — and with greater intensity after the 2005 London bombings — he immersed himself in books and articles on Islamic history and culture, not knowing where his research would lead.

“I wanted to understand what was going on,” he said. “Once I started reading I found things that made me laugh.”

As he pieced together a ground-level view of Islamic extremism — talking to a wide spectrum of British Muslims, interviewing security experts, poring over transcripts and documents from terrorism trials — he noticed an abundance of plans gone wrong and a pattern of incongruous situations and idiotic behavior: the makings of farce, in other words.

There were the would-be terrorists who set up a training camp in the woods but slept in their van because they were afraid of mice. Recordings by the MI5 security service of a London cell turned up “reams of rubbish dialogue,” Mr. Morris said, “like debates about who’s cooler, bin Laden or Johnny Depp” and puzzled questions about the exact purpose of all that fertilizer they had purchased.


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