Four, no, five buffoons

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It's easy to see why Drafthouse Films (the new distribution arm of Austin's great Alamo Drafthouse theater chain) was able to snap up the rights to British TV vet Chris Morris's feature film debut, Four Lions. Probably no one else wanted to touch it. It's not a movie for everybody.

I saw Four Lions last night at a preview screening at Piper's Alley, and I thought it was the funniest movie I'd seen since, well, The Hangover. Like any number of other comedies, it's the story of a buffoonish group of losers determined to succeed at something they clearly have no talent for. What makes Four Lions different is that the something is jihad. Will you like it? That depends on how much taste you have for laughing at suicide bombings. (Mild spoilers may lie ahead.)

Omar and Waj are two would-be British-Pakistani mujahideen who get ejected from an Al Qaeda training camp for rank incompetence. Undeterred from their dreams of glorious martyrdom, they tell the rest of their goofy terror cell back home in England that they've been sent back to carry out an important mission. The antics of the group, the most volatile member of which is a loose-cannon white convert to Islam, as they bumble their way toward a series of suicide bombings are very funny stuff, laugh-out-loud stuff. But you can't help but feel a certain amount of discomfort laughing at this gang of sincere fools.

Are we laughing at stereotyped Muslims? I don't think so. We're laughing at comedic types, certainly, but as embodied by characters who are actually more three-dimensional than you might expect in this sort of movie. Along with the uncomfortable laughs, we get a look inside the rage, the faith, the yearning for community, and the yearning for glory that prods a certain type of personality into taking up a violent cause. And the self-styled jihadis are hardly the only Muslims we meet. In the course of the film we encounter a wide range of Muslims, most of whom want nothing to do with violence, and a few of whom get caught up in it anyway, in different ways.

I guess a movie like Four Lions has to be approached in two ways. First, does it just plain work as a movie? I'll get back to that question, because I want to tackle the second question first: Is it wrong to make a comedy about Muslim terrorists at a time when anti-Muslim sentiment is already running at such a fever pitch?

I think the answer to this question is no. If this were an anti-Muslim film, then I might give a different answer. But the comedy, the bumbling antics, as discomfiting as they may be, use familiar types and tropes to draw us into an unfamiliar milieu. And when things start to go pear-shaped for the conspirators, we realize we've come to sympathize with these characters, and that we're emotionally invested in their fates. Despite the death and mayhem (and make no mistake, this is a black comedy, one in which Western law enforcement is just as confused, jumpy, and mistake-prone as the terrorists), that may be the most subversive aspect of the movie—sympathy for the devils. If this movie is anti-anything, it's anti-stupidity, and sadly there's plenty of that commodity to go around.

So does it work as a movie. Yes. I found the humor a little uneven, especially toward the beginning, before I'd assimilated the rhythm of the movie and its dialects. (Yes, the accents in Four Lions take some getting used to, and even later I had to strain to understand them at times. But don't let that scare you off.) Bottom line, this is a movie that only seems to treat a serious subject cavalierly. As a comedy, side-splitting and jaw-dropping as hell, it allows you to hope that everything might turn out well in the end. But as a story of would-be martyrs, you have to ask yourself, "Turns out well for whom?"

It's a measure of the power of Four Lions that it ultimately can't be slotted easily into either set of expectations.

[Four Lions, already playing in a few cities, opens tomorrow in San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, Katy, Duluth, Asheville, and Somerville. Go see it. You'll have a great time, insha'Allah. And boy, will you ever have something to talk to your date about afterwards.]

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William Shunn

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This page contains a single entry by William Shunn published on November 11, 2010 7:12 PM.

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