Chris Morris is part of a particular generation of British comedy guys to come out of TV, and taken as part of a movement, I find it very exciting. "Four Lions" is an enormously cheeky feature film debut for Morris, but there's also a "get out of jail free" card that he's dealt himself here that is the one clear way he seems to be playing it safe.
First, let me be clear: "Four Lions" is the most interesting thing I've seen at the entire festival so far. "Cyrus" may be more successful overall as a film, but "Four Lions" is more exciting, more electric. I find it hard to believe that this film really exists. I half-suspected that what I'd heard about it before seeing it would turn out to be an elaborate prank on the part of the filmmakers. Nope. Chris Morris has indeed made a broad heartwarming comedy about five bumbling jihadists living in London, suicide bombers just waiting on their call to service.
And it is painfully funny.
I think a movie like this is absolutely essential right now. It is vital to defang and demystify the notion of the terrorist. When we have people trying to blow up planes, it's scary. When they're trying to blow up planes with their underpants, it starts to get funny, and then we don't know how to process that. The added level of absurdity is what Morris seems to be exploring, the idea of a world where terrorrists have blooper reels, and by daring to aim just as high as he is low with his jokes, Morris pulls off the near-impossible.
Riz Ahmed stars as Omar, who is as much of a leader as anyone can be in this particular cell, and he's ready to do something with his life. He manages to whip his best friend Waj (Kayvan Novak) into a similar frenzy. Waj is a gigantic doofus, totally awash in the influence of pop culture, and whatever Omar says goes. What's amazing is how Omar's family, including his wife Sophia (Preeya Kalidas) and his ten-year-old son, are equally sure that Omar is doing the right thing, and some of the most uncomfortable moments in the film come from the warm, happy domestic moments as this family calmly discusses the unthinkable. Their scenes are a whole different style of humor from the rest of the film, and in the end, it's soem of the material that most directly challenges the viewer's sense of human empathy.
Omar and Waj are also friends with Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), who claims to be ready for action but who always has an excuse for why he can't go to jihad today, and then there's Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a white English muslim who seems to be mainly interested in the promise of violence and less concerned with any real ideological message. When omar ges a call to report to a training camp in Pakistan, the only one he's allowed to bring is Waj, which creates an instant schism in the group.
Omar and Waj prove themselves almost completely useless as soldiers, while back in London, Barry and Faisal recruit a new member to their cause, Hassan (Arsher Ali), a young guy who loves rap and radicalism. But mostly rap. When Omar and Waj fail out of training camp (in a gag that you see coming, but that is executed with real flair), they lie to the others and tell them that they've been sent back to London with a mission. It's time. There's a target now. They're ready and something is going to get blown up, damn it. But... what? And who?
You can't make a film like this unless you're prepared to go all the way. "Dr. Strangelove," after all, doesn't pull punches. "Network" doesn't play nice. You can't make a film like this if you're worried about going too far. Morris co-wrote the film with Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain, and Simon Blackwell. You're talking about a brain trust that's responsible for "Peep Show," "Bruno," "In The Loop," "Brass Eye," "The Thick Of It," "The Day Today," and "Nathan Barley," just to name a few. So is there any surprise how strong the writing is on the film? Or that they ultimately had the nerve to go all the way with it?
It's easy to write to shock, but the real test of one of these movies is whether you engage with the film on any level beyond that cheap and easy shock. In the case of "Four Lions," the least important part of the film is the shock. This is character comedy, first and foremost, and this cast is outstanding. Riz Ahmed was very good in Winterbottom's "The Road To Guantanamo," but he's great here. Charismatic and genuine, he's at his best playing off of Kayvan Novak's Waj, a Muslim Lenny and George. Nigel Lindsay is a force of nature as Barry, the white Muslim, overcompensating to the point of extreme radicalism. His plan to bomb a mosque is one of the most deranged examples of how far an extremist will go to prove a point, however moronic.
For me, the film went from "really like" to "love" during the last 40 minutes or so. Morris spins things out of control convincingly while always maintaining a sense of control over how that chaos plays out. He's worked in radio and on television, and his work is always appropriate to the media he picks. he made "Four Lions" as a film, and to very specific effect. He says everything he needed to say about these characters. A series would have been too much, and it would have removed some of the threat of impending violence. The film manages to keep your sympathy engaged just long enough before asking you to question that sympathy you're feeling. The ending hurts, and the laughs are duly bitter. Morris humanizes these people precisely because he ridicules them. That's what his humor hinges on... his recognition that as human beings, we all carry the same preposterous seeds of failure with us.
Finally, about that "get out of jail free" card... one of the main pressures on a first-time filmmaker, particularly if they've succeeded elsewhere, is delivering a financial hit. It's fine to be a critic's darling, but investors want a return on their money, and by making a jihadist comedy, Morris has given himself the ultimate bulletproof shield. If the film doesn't get picked up by a US distributor, or if it does but they whiff the release completely, Morris can always say, "Well, Americans are just too tight-arsed for a comedy about terrorism," and he's off the hook. It'll be our fault if the film doesn't play. Crafty, sir. I hope distributors don't play the old game of "Well, I understood it and I wasn't offended, but the audience isn't as smart as me, so I don't think they'd get it." Trust the audience. Trust that people want to laugh at this stuff. Trust that they need to laugh at this stuff.
For me, "Four Lions" was the clear winner of the Sundance Film Festival 2010.
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