I Really F**ked It Up This Time, Didn’t I My Dear?
When most people attempt to do terrorist comedy, they always approach it with a broad stereotype. Usually, some buffoon wearing a towel around his head, making "durka durka" sounds while repeatedly shouting Allah and wearing some sort of belt of plastic explosives. Just Hi-LAR-ious. In order to get a laugh, they have to pull out the old trope of "Lookit da funny furrinner! He don't right talk right, hyuk!" What makes Christopher Morris' Four Lions so daring is that he totally humanizes a group of jihadists. He essentially pulls off "Seinfeld" in Riyadh. It's a bumbling buddy comedy about a group of petty and pissed-off friends who insult each other and get mad at each other - but who also happen to be British Islamic extremists. But make no mistake, it absolutely takes jabs at Islamic fundamentalism, terrorist bombings and governmental stupidity. However, it comes from the same kind of jokes you would expect from any four friends who are fuck-ups. You could easily replace Islam with Christianity, Scientology, or hell, even the Mormons. The characters are so sharp and rich, and so brilliantly hilarious, it's like watching the In The Loop mash-up of Dr. Strangelove. I just think most audiences are going to find it unpalatable because of the sheer kudzu stranglehold of the British slang and dialects, and the dark, dark, stunningly dark places it inevitably goes. It's like listening to someone reading Swift's A Modest Proposal with a BBQ rib apron and face smeared with sauce. And then they actually bite into the crisp apple noggin of a toddler midspeech.
When we open on terrorists making a video threat about the McDonaldization of Culture, I got scared I was going to see another Osama Bin Laden with a rubber chicken type flick - a series of just increasingly lamer comedic sketches featuring the Arabik A-Holes rather than the Keystone Kops. But the insults and fuck-ups come out of the bickering between the characters, not the wackiness of the setups. An argument ensues between Waj (Kayvan Novak), a braindead simpleton, and Omar (Riz Ahmed), the defacto leader, over Waj's insistence on holding a tiny AK-47 in the video. It's not all about the gun, but about the dynamic between the two men. Morris's script - which was also penned by "Peep Show" and In the Loop scribes Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain and Simon Blackwell - does this elaborate job of taking absurdist situations and grounding them with the reality of these frustrated men.
Like any well-written comedy, it's about the characters battling their own inadequacies for fear that other people will find them out. If you throw any five deeply flawed men with completely dissonant fundamental beliefs into a pressure cooker, it's going to explode. And it does quite literally here. We've got Omar, who wants to take down the society that belittles him and makes him feel like less of a man, all while sharing a loving home with a wife and child who love him and support him in his wish to strike a blow at oppression by becoming a sacrificial martyr. Waj follows him like a preschooler, excitable at the concept but not smart enough to fully understand what it actually means, and prone to sullen mood swings and petty violent outbursts. Barry (Nigel Lindsay) is a white Muslim, so extreme that he wants to bring the downfall of everything, and practically chokes himself on the fumes of his own misguided bullshit. He's constantly duking it out with Omar over control of the group. Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) is the explosives expert of the group, a quiet man so petrified of actually being a suicide bomber and leaving his sick father to care for himself that he's attempting to train crows to carry bombs. The last member of the cell to join is a student named Hassan (Arsher Ali) who spits rhymes and likes to make symbolic protests, but never quite understands the actual dedication necessary to becoming a martyr for the cause. So most of the delight of the film comes from these five varying ideologies clash with one another, particularly the brash Barry, who's just a militant assclown.
The humor is absurd, and dark, but comes from such natural places, it's easy to miss most of the jokes. A shitton was lost in translation on me, despite being a semi-devotee of several BBC and Channel 4 comedies, as I'm not nearly as well versed in the British/Arabic colloquialisms that they kept bullet firing at one another. Besides that, there are several moments in the film where once you actually sit back and realize the overarching circumstances in which some of these jokes are being riffed, it makes it one thousand times more hilarious. The characters get into a petty argument trying to decide on what they are going to suicide bomb, and while the argument itself is pretty funny, when you actually think about the ramifications of the fact that they are actually planning on destroying themselves with plastic explosives, you marvel at audacity. But it's because all the humor is mostly rooted in the natural interactions of the characters, Morris can get away with some of the broader slapstick zaniness that occurs in the story.
I'm only familiar with Morris from his portrayal of Denholm, the boss on the first two seasons of "The IT Crowd," but apparently, he's got several satirical pieces under his belt. This was his first foray into directing, and it was a fucking ballsy move. He really benefits from the incredibly strong performances of his entire cast. Every single actor, even the smaller supporting cast, simply destroys their parts. Which is why, when the film starts taking a more heart-wrenching and bittersweet turn, you really are kind of touched. All the wacky antics of the terrorist actions are resting on a wonderful spine of pure unadulterated heart, and which never would have worked if not for the dedication of making these terrorists real people.
There's no doubt that people are going to be offended by the prospect of this film. Without a doubt, people will want to bring up the victims who died in the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington or the 7/7 bombings in Britain, United 93, and countless soldiers who died from IED explosions. But to go there is to miss the entire point of the film - it's not laughing at a cartoon of Mohammed and instead laughing at the leashed prisoners in Guantanamo. Four Lions doesn't poke fun at terrorism - it pokes fun at fundamentalism. It mocks the people who don't think rationally, by turning their radical notions into a farce. It's a goddamn bold venture, but it's not meant to be controversial for controversy's sake. It's not mocking Muslims for their faith, it's Muslims who are mocking each other for being idiots. And the idiocy doesn't come from their belief system, it comes from the fact that these are clearly some misguided morons.
Speaking of ballsy and misguided belief systems, Tim League made the unbelievably brave choice to distribute Four Lions as the first in his new Drafthouse Films distribution wing. League is the mayor of mayhem during South by Southwest and Fantastic Fest, and you'd expect him to champion something as daring as this film. This is the dude who screened A Serbian Film, after all. Four Lions is easily one of the best films of a year of pretty spectacular indie releases (I can count the studio releases that I honestly gave a shit about on one hand, and I've got two fingers taped together on it). But it's not a film for everyone, especially considering it's got one of the most bizarrely dark endings since Time Bandits or Very Bad Things, bizarre in the fact that it somehow manages to be simultaneously beautiful, funny, and depressing.
Four Lions will be opening in select cities, starting on November 5th, so please try to support it if you can. Of course, if you can't laugh at this, you're just letting the terrorists win.
In the interest of full disclosure, I was admitted to a free screening of this film.