Thursday, December 2, 2010
KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando reviews the British comedy "Four Lions."
The British film "Four Lions"(opening December 3 at the Reading Gaslamp 15 Theaters) serves up a comedy about wannabe suicide bombers. This got me wondering if anything has the potential to be funny. You can listen to my radio feature or read my review.
Back in 1968 Mel Brooks made "The Producers" and was criticized for making a comedy about Adolf Hitler. Nazis were not meant to be funny. But Brooks retorted, "if you ridicule them, you bring them down with laughter, they can't win. You show how crazy they are." The film went on to win an Oscar for best screenplay and to be widely acclaimed as a classic comedy. Now British filmmaker Chris Morris has come along to make "Four Lions," a comedy about a group of inept terrorists.
But can terrorism be funny? At least with Nazis the war was over and Hitler was in the past. Terrorism, on the other hand, is very much a current reality. People feel in the midst of it rather than past it. So maybe distance is needed for such comedy to be more acceptable.
But Morris has a history creating fake news comedy shows (such as "The Day Today" and "Brass Eye") in England. He's used to making people laugh inappropriately at such serious subjects as the IRA, 9/11, and pedophilia. So he couldn't help but laugh when he read about the incompetence of some real-life terrorists.
The men in Morris' "Four Lions" are not really religious or political. They play video games, listen to rap, and have testosterone to burn. They're attracted to the notion of heroic sacrifice and making a mark in history.
Omar: What we gotta do has got to last in history, echo through the ages.
Barry: Like bomb a mosque.
Omar: We're not going to bomb a mosque.
Barry: You don't get it do you Omar? We radicalize the moderates, the Iman rises up, the whole thing kicks off.
But these wannabe suicide bombers are buffoons prone to making bad decisions and engaging in clumsy action. When two of them go to a terrorist training camp, the real terrorist calls them "F-cking Mr. Beans." And that's precisely what they are. But their incompetence doesn't stop Omar from looking to "The Lion King" as inspiration and dubbing his quartet the "Four Lions" when he's re-spinning the Disney tale for his young son.
Many people will likely take offense at the film but it actually manages to sidestep politics and religion in order to focus on the inept, self-delusional side of wannabe terrorists. Take this lesson about how to avoid being tracked.
Barry: You eat your SIM card. Get your SIM card out, remove it, and…
Waj: Can I cook mine?
Barry: No you must eat it raw like this.
Barry is a white convert to Islam. He's the one who gets in a pissing match with the others about who's the most "Al-Qaeda." But Omar is the smart one, and that's not saying much. He steers the terror cell away from blowing up a mosque and instead targeting the London Marathon. They strap on explosives and hide them under mascot costumes like a Mutant Ninja Turtle and a Honey Monster. This prompts the authorities to swing into action to take down costumed characters as they run through the streets. Only problem is the cops display the same bungling ineptitude as the terrorists.
Cop: A honey monster is not a bear.
Second Cop: A honey monster is down.
Cop: No control, we have a wookie down.
Morris' film raises questions about comedy, like what's the difference between farce and satire? Satire is defined (in an online literary glossary) as "the literary art of ridiculing a folly or vice in order to expose or correct it. It can evoke amusement, contempt, scorn, or indignation toward its faulty subject in the hope of somehow improving it." Farce, on the other hand, has less on its mind. It's defined as "a form of humor based on exaggerated, improbable incongruities, and can involve rapid shifts in action and emotion, as well as slapstick." Morris identifies his film a farce and that does provide a more accurate description of "Four Lions."
What makes "Four Lions" work is that Morris crafts a smart, savvy script and doesn't play it like an American TV sitcom. His years doing fake news serve him well and he gives the film an oddly realistic style that butts up against the absurdity of the situations. There's awkward laughter in the disconnect between family life at Omar's house and the fact that he wants to be a terrorist.
Wife: You were much more fun when you wanted to blow yourself up.
Omar: I am going to blow meself up but just not in a mosque or on top of a duck.
Wife: If they are going to blow themselves up in the wrong place, then you have to make sure to blow yourself up in the right place.
The tone is very natural, and the characters come across as real and human. They're not necessarily humanized but they're not evil with a capital "E." In the end, "Four Lions" may not deliver a message or serve up political or social commentary that addresses the causes or root of terrorism.This film isn't about enlightening us. Instead it offers a hilarious, pitch black comedy that suggests we can never protect ourselves from stupidity and incompetence.
Companion viewing: "Mr. Bean," "Dr. Strangelove," "The Terrorist"