Thursday, November 18, 2010

Four Lions

Chris Morris, the most ingenious and darkly savage man in British television comedy (which places him high in the running for most ruthless comedian period), is no stranger to controversy, but he pulls no punches for his debut feature. Four Lions is a jihadist comedy, focusing on a group of British-born Muslims planning a fundamentalist uprising in England. What is most surprising , and rewarding, about it is the manner in which the film manages not only to avoid cheaply offending Muslims but to deliver a scathing blow to fundamentalism of all stripes.

The nature of terrorism makes the enemy a nebulously defined other that lives as a specter in the minds of those who fear it. Recently, it has taken root in the Western consciousness as nothing more specific than Arabs or those of Arab ethnicity. What Morris recognizes, especially in the wake of the 7/7 bombings on the London Underground, is that even if Muslims are the ones primarily targeting Western infrastructure at the moment, many of those involved have been raised at least partially with a connection to the West, either benefiting from Western financial cooperation, as Osama bin Laden did until the royal family broke contact with him, or like those responsible for the London bombings, having grown up in the Western world.

Morris could all too easily have fallen into the trap of making his natural-born Muslim characters symbolic of a perceived need for post-9/11 or 7/7 constant vigilance concerning all Muslims. Instead, he portrays the group of five British Muslims yearning for jihad as the result of the extremities of a religion they haven't outpaced and a society that essentially views them as terrorists anyway. Far from crazed fundamentalists, these men appear stuck in millennial ennui, so unable to find their place in this hypermodern world that they return to their roots.

The only problem is that they are all magnificently stupid. Omar (Rix Ahmed), the de facto ringleader, is the sharpest of the bunch but still naïve and childish. When his son, who may not be as erudite as dad but has the same ignorance, asks his father about holy war, Omar likens it to the plot of The Lion King, and one wonders if that's not how he actually envisions the role of fundamentalist Islam against Western oppression. His closest friend, Taj (Kayvan Novak), is hapless and often confused, to the point that he even knows he makes a specific face when bewildered and continues to irrationally until he starts making that face and takes a step back. He believes heaven to be a place not unlike the theme park Alton Towers, specifically the "rubber-dinghy rapids" ride. Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), who attempts to train crows to carry tiny bombs into targets, to no avail.

Then, there's Barry (veteran actor Nigel Lindsay), a convert who, as the old saying goes, is more devout than any of the men raised Muslims. He speaks of bombing a mosque in a Watchmen-esque double-blind to rally the moderate Muslims to jihad, but in that plan is also a hint of self-righteousness against the mosques that are starting to soften as they enter the 21st century. He speaks of women "talking back" and mosques playing music with stringed instruments, horrifying changes that must, of course, be swiftly eradicated. "I'm the most al-Qaeda one here," the hysterically white, well-fed man whines when Omar and Taj head off to Pakistan to join a training camp, but the absurdity of the moment doesn't disguise the fact that's he not wrong. Barry reminded me of John Goodman's character in The Big Lebowski, save for the fact that he converted to Islam instead of Judaism. Both are portly, loud, inept yet unstoppably confident, and their zeal makes for as many moments of fearful discomfort as laughs.

Morris, whose programs The Day Today and Brass Eye precipitated The Daily Show's format under Jon Stewart (albeit much, much darker), is familiar with the media's role in society. In the advent of 24-hour news channels, much less the Internet, the media serves less to inform the public than it does to do anything in its power to grab ratings. As such, these men seem to view suicide bombing not only as a path to heaven but to fame. Hassan, a prankster who makes himself known as Barry speaks at a panel discussion on Islam in the UK, loves to rhyme everything, acting as if he might become the next 2pac on his path to salvation. Never mind that no one ever remembers those who carry out the bombings, only the ones who planned attacks in secrecy and safety; the constant recording of home-video tapes à la Osama's video messages only rams the idea home. These guys probably got their picked and chosen Qur'an quotes and their fame-hungry approach from the same place: YouTube.

After all, they all display a total lack of Islamic knowledge. In Pakistan, Taj faces east to pray, having faced east his whole life, and he even argues when one of the Pakistanis berates him because Mecca is the other way. Taj has clearly never had to truly face Mecca, only a vague direction that someone told him to face in England. Omar is enlightened enough to treat his wife with respect and equality, but his mockery of some friends' outdated ways falls flat when he returns to cherry-picking other fundamentalist quotes from his holy text. And when the Muslims say something terrible is always "God's plan, they sound as fatalistic and unbelieving as the Christians who utter it." When Taj somehow corrals some hostages in the film's climax, he notes that they are Muslim but asks Omar, "I still get points for taking them with me, right? Like Nectar card?"

No one escapes unscathed from Morris' withering eye. At the panel discussion where Hassan reveals himself, he sets off fake explosives after scaring everyone, only to yell police brutality when security escorts him out calmly. As the audience is mostly bourgeois college students, there are actually boos when cops gently take him outside. A liberal MP on the panel rightly separates extremists from the rest of the pack, but he wrongly takes such a soft, PC view on the matter that he neglects to issue the proper response to those who do commit terrorism: unforgiving punishment carried out in due process. Police come off as inept at the wannabe terrorists, chasing them around in the climax and firing at the wrong Muslims in an unspoken demonstration of the "they all look alike" racial view; Morris then undercuts this more scathing attack with a more riotous argument over whether a man in a marathon dressed as Chewbacca are with the other costumed terrorists, leading to an argument over whether Chewie is the "bear" being targeted.

Four Lions is funny. It's damned funny. I haven't laughed so hard since...oh dear, since Morris' Day Today cohort Armando Iannucci put out In the Loop last year. We learn that Barry tried to order silver nitrate on Amazon, and he constantly blames his dilapidated car's breakdowns on "Jewish parts" (mainly spark plugs, natch). Omar and Waj have fun discussing how they'd kill each other for Islam, describing in graphic detail how they would destroy each other but making it sound like the "Do you know how I know you're gay" scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. And just like those two idiots, Omar and Taj come off as so vapid that it's impressive they still know how to breathe.

Near the end, Four Lions loses its way a bit, with Morris looking for a way out that maintains his attack on the various targets of the film -- blinding liberal guilt, incompetent (and possibly racist) police force, religious fundamentalism -- without coming to any too-definite conclusions that might reduce everything to oversimplified points. But the problem is that Four Lions lacks any real climactic punch because of it. In the end, it becomes unexpectedly tragic, but if the last 15 minutes were tighter that peek of emotion at the end could have been much more poignant.

Nevertheless, Four Lions is as good a comedy as I've seen in some time, a well-researched, well-measured study of a prickly labyrinth of controversy and the endless double-back of religious and social hypocrisy that maintains a tight hold until the last 20 minutes and rallying again at the end. It may not measure up to the heights of either In the Loop or Morris' own television work, but it's more than a worthy debut feature for its creator and a hopeful sign of more blistering cinema to come from one of the UK's best talents. Being as used as I am to the typical American approach to social and ethnic comedy, I was deathly afraid that Four Lions would take the easy, race-baiting way out despite the best efforts of those involved. That'll teach me to underestimate the British.

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