A friend once declared that the basis of Pommy humour is “putting on a silly hat and pulling faces.” I objected to this as reductive – he left out the ‘funny’ voice.
OK, not fair. The Brits gave us Fawlty Towers, The Young Ones and The Office, for which I will be ever grateful. But really, there IS a lot of slapstick and clowny stuff in their comedies – even the good ones.
I’m not immune to silly hat/face/voice humour. Black Adder was often chuckleworthy. Little Britain worked for me for a while. Ditto Ali G. But I have to confess to not getting the Goons. I found Monty Python less hit than miss and consider it vastly overrated. And to fast forward to the 21st Century and change tack from TV and radio to film, I found last year’s widely acclaimed political satire In The Loop profoundly unfunny and tedious. I haven’t been that unamused or bored in a movie since…that is, until Four Lions.
You know where I’m coming from. If your taste in Brit comedy coincides with mine, read on. If not, don’t bother – head over to Rotten Tomatoes where you’ll find a staggering (to me) 85% of critics raving about Four Lions, and throwing around words like masterpiece, hilarious, ingenious etc.
I suspect these guys are down with a touch of Emperor’s New Clothes. See, Four Lions is the directorial feature film debut of Chris Morris, who has a reputation in the UK as an audacious, ground-breaking, bizarro satirist whose credits include the award-winning 90s BBC2 mock-news comedy The Day Today, the celebrated series Brass Eye, and Jam – purportedly ‘the darkest comedy ever written’. Very uncool not to embrace Four Lions, then…
I dunno. I feel like an alien sometimes. Do all those critics really find this shite so inventive, so uproariously funny? Truly, I did not raise a smirk throughout. Was I confronted by the notion of terrorism being treated humorously? Hardly – I like my humour black, no sugar.
The movie seeks to apply a comedic blowtorch to terrorism by presenting four British jihadists as figures of farce. There are obvious precedents here: for example, Chaplin famously satirized Hitler and Nazism in The Great Dictator. It is a mark of his genius that he pulled it off – a feat that Morris falls far short of in Four Lions.
His strategy in finding a funny side to Islamic terrorism is to cast the jihadists as a bunch o lads. Instead of getting all fired up over football or demonstrating their machismo in ale-downing competitions at the local, these blokes argue over who is ‘more Al-Qaeda’ and seek to outdo each other in their visions of militant extremity. There’s lots of chest-thumping, ego clashes, paying out on each other, and general ineptitude as they mess up their lines recording terrorist videos, fail terrorist training school in Afghanistan, experiment with a crow strapped with explosives as a weapon-in-development, and debate over whether to bomb the local mosque, the London marathon or the internet. Not bad. So where does it all go wrong?
IT’S NOT FUNNY!
Why? Well, the characters have a lot to do with it. They are all soooo stupid, which in itself could provide some grist for the comedy mill but for one problem – there is nothing endearing about any of these boneheads. And they’re not only dumb – they’re dull. Except for Barry (Nigel Lindsay), perhaps, who is a blustering blowhard so full of anger and hate it’s unsettling. Hardly the stuff of wild guffaws.
Some might find the sight of a crow exploding hilarious. Not me. Or a clumsy terrorist who trips over a fence and detonates the explosives he’s carrying (oh yes, slapstick aplenty here). Some might erupt in mirth over the many creatively overwrought insults that are flung around. Eg: If you don’t stop that, I’ll shove it up your arse so hard you’ll be wearing your ring as a headband (that’s an approximation that I submit is funnier in this misremembered form than the original). Not me.
No surprise, incidentally, that one of the writers, Jesse Armstrong, worked on the screenplay for In The Loop, which relied heavily for laughs on elaborate scatological payout lines (essentially vulgarised revisitings of a peculiarly British comedic writing style popularised by Rowan Atkinson and Ben Elton circa Black Adder).
So unfunny did I find this thing, and so uninteresting the characters, that an hour in I was bored shitless, irritated and fidgeting at the prospect of sitting through the rest of it. I did so only out of curiosity over how it would end. Would they try to push it to the line as a comedy? I couldn’t see how. And indeed, as the movie moves towards its conclusion and the lads towards their rewards in the afterlife, the tone changes. Martyrdom ain’t no barrel of laughs, no way, no how… and most surely not when it comes packed with bolts to inflict maximum damage on infidels within shrapnel range.
In the end, then, the outrageous Mr Morris retreated to the safer ground of a morality tale. Not that I blame him – what else was he to do? – but the tonal transition was awkward, jarring and unconvincing, and left an impression of a malformed piece of work, ill-conceived and disappointing in that it is dangerous in its premise, but ultimately safe in its execution. The movie might have been more successful if Morris and the writers had swerved away from making any sort of serious statement on terrorism and instead pushed the boundaries of farce out into ultra-whacko absurdist territory.
And, you know, this is one Brit ‘comedy’ that really could have done with some of those silly hats/faces/voices. Just the thing to lighten up a terrorist bomber.
For mine, the dog of the year to date – by quite a few barks.
For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives