Monday, November 22, 2010

Wrestling with FOUR LIONS - Funniest Movie About Terrorism Ever?


- Four Lions is the type of movie that is sure to court controversy. For some, the premise alone is inherently offensive: a comedy about terrorists - suicide bombers. But if you think about it, pop-culture directly satirizing terrorism has been strangley absent over the last decade. There's a long tradition of comedy poking fun at our nation's enemies - from Hitler to Saddam Hussein. And yet, the threat of terrorism has been built up in recent years as being so horrible, so evil, so gravely serious that attempts to mock terrorists have been kept to a relative minimum. Sure, there's been the odd SNL sketch making fun of Osama Bin Laden, but I think that, overall, the national mood has been so volatile that there is still a real fear of satirizing the war on terror or even the terrorists themselves. So, I guess it's no surprise that a real, biting satire like Four Lions comes to us from Britain, where dark, biting, politically challenging humor has long been part of the pop cultural conversation. Four Lions reminds me a lot of something like the UK Office in terms of tone - there's that awkward, quasi-mockumentary style at play (though this isn't a mockumentary). And there's that very dark, uncompromising look at human nature, a perspective which produces a lot of laughs, but which also creates an undercurrent of tragicomedy and sadness. Obviously, the stakes in Four Lions are a lot higher than those in something like The Office though, and the movie doesn't shy away from that. To me, that's why the movie works so well - it's very funny, but like good satire should, it makes sure to emphasize that it's central characters, while a source of comedy, are also deeply misguided and oftentimes, just plain dumb. It's a tricky balancing act, but I think the movie pulls it off.

Four Lions follows a group of would-be Muslim terrorists in a small town outside of London. There's Omar - the leader of the group and perhaps the most level-headed. There's Waj - the movie's biggest source of comedy and belly laughs, because he's essentially a follower who doesn't quite understand what he's getting into, mostly because he's dumb as a rock. There's Barry, a white convert to Islam who is the most radical of the group - his ideas for terrorism plots are so over-the-top that you have to laugh at how ultimately stupid and preposterous they are. Finally, there's Hassan - a young Muslim radical who raps (yes, raps) about being oppressed and discriminated against, and is sort of like Ali G if Ali G were an Islamic terrorist.

Now, the latter three characters are all broad enough to be very funny. Sure, the rhetoric they espouse is pretty disturbing at times, and Hassan in particular is part of some scenes that are pretty damn dark. But, ultimately, it's Omar who comes off as by far the film's most disturbing - and likely most controversial character. This is because he is, essentially, the film's "hero." He's the leader of the group, the main character. And in a lot of scenes, he doesn't seem like that bad of a guy. It's a strange incongruity. He's got a loving and attractive wife, and a young son who he cares for. He lives in a nice flat, has a decent job as a security guard. And yet ... he is a terrorist who wants to blow himself up in the name of Islam and murder innocent people. It's a jarring contrast, to say the least. Especially when you realize that his wife, while sad at the fact that Omar plans to kill himself, is also supportive of his decision. The other members of the group are loners, outcasts - it makes sense in some twisted way as to why they'd make these choices. But Omar is the one who really scares you because you have to essentially be delusional or completely brainwashed to be willing to sacrifice your family, your life, in the name of becoming a "martyr."
To the credit of FOUR LIONS though, the movie finds some great humor in all of this. It's pretty scathing. There's the fact that all of these guys are pop-culture obsessed despite claiming to hate Western society and all it stands for. The fact that they constantly film themselves delivering Bin Laden style hate messages - which are really just their attempts to seem badass in front of a camera. The movie just finds and mocks all of the inherent stupidity in these sadsack dumbasses trying to become some warped ideal of a badass terrorist, and failing miserably. Again, I think in many ways the movie is a satire of OUR PERCEPTIONS of terrorists and terrorism. We paint these people as cartoon villains - uber-competent, uber-capable master strategists who are inhumanly evil. Four Lions plays with this perception and shows that many of these guys are these brainwashed guys who never quite got over their "angry teenager" phase. And there's the fact that they are easily-manipulated idiots. One of the movie's most clever subplots, for example, involves Omar's brother, who is a pious and essentially peaceful Muslim religious leader. The movie slyly comments that the guys who truly practice what they preach - who study Islam and are serious about it - aren't necessarilly the ones anyone should be worried about. In fact, it's the guys like Omar and Waj and Barry - guys who spend all their time plotting and scheming and trying to be badass - who could actually give a crap about their religion. They are mostly just concered with fighting this perceived neverending battle against the West, of finding some meaning in their lives in which they - ordinary Joes - can somehow become an insta-hero by strapping a bomb to themselves. It's telling that one of the movie's funniest running jokes involves Barry's crazy idea to blow up Mosques, of all places, so that they somehow end up radicalizing all the Muslim moderates and bringing about an all-out war between Islam and the West. Barry's inability to think through his plan with any degree of logic makes for some hilarious moments, but it's also a pretty biting commentary on where some of these guys' true priorities lie.

The great thing is that despite how biting the movie's themes are, despite how dark it goes, it's still damn funny. There's a great mix of slapstick, satire, and absurdist back-and-forth dialogue. This is a highly quotable movie, and there are some very memorable, very amusing exchanges - many of them involving Waj and his total obliviousness to everything. I guess my only critique would be that the lower-key comedy style (and very British comedy style) is the type that I imagine might play better on the smaller screen than it does in a theater. Alot of the humor is dialogue-driven, and very sitcom-ish in execution - not a bad thing, but it does tend to drag a little after a while. As a counter to that, things really pick up in the totally hilarious / intense / tragic / memorable final act, as the Four Lions actually attempt to carry out the attack they've been planning during a busy London marathon. This section of the film is much more cinematic than anything else in the movie, and this is where you really sit up in your seat, bite your nails, and wonder just how the hell far this movie is actually going to go. And again, to its credit, Four Lions takes things to their logical extremes, and is pretty uncompromising in that regard.
I suppose one final question is: how can this movie work if the characters are both semi-likable and also terrorists? Again - I think it's a fine line, but I think that's part of what makes the movie so memorably tragic. It posits that these characters do have a human side to them and, admittedly, they do become oddly endearing over the course of the movie. But again, it works. It makes the fact that they are planning to "martyr" themselves all the more infuriating and mind-boggling. It's easy to make a terrorist character a supervillain - and lord knows our politicians do that all the time in their rhetoric, and pop culture does it all the time as well. But seeing these characters as being at-times likable, as having some good in them, makes their decisions that much more poignantly scary and real-seeming. Not many movies would have the guts to present us with these kinds of characters, and even fewer would have the smarts to make it work.

Writer / Director Christopher Morris has created one of the most topical and thought-provoking films of the last few years with Four Lions. It can drag at times (especially in the middle section), and the humor can occasionally be hit or miss (and maybe too British at times to fully register with American audiences). But I give it credit for being such a ballsy and mostly hilarious satire. And, sadly, it's one of the few real politically-charged comedies we've seen in the last decade. I give this one a big recommendation if you like dark comedy and satire - if it's playing near you, check it out. This is one of the most daring, dark, thought-provoking, and funny movies of the year.

My Grade: A-

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