Four Lions

2 stars out of five
by S. James Wegg
Publish Date: February 23, 2011
Send in the Clowns

It’s a well-known fact that humour allows virtually any subject to be treated irreverently. A mature society ought to be able to make fun of itself. Horrifically taboo subjects (e.g., KKK, disabilities, beheadings) can come out of their terrifying closets. Once pilloried, a better understanding and more open discussion helps ease the pain and—perhaps—lessens the incidence rate.

Sooner or later, accordingly, modern jihadism had to have its turn in the limelight.

Having recently reviewed more true-to-life (and most certainly death) terrorists’ stories (cross-references below) and watching the news every day, the challenge of writing a script filled with yuks about suicide bombers seemed especially formidable.

Perhaps not surprisingly, in the tradition of long-running sitcoms, four writers were involved in penning the script (Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain, Simon Blackwell and Christopher Morris—who also directed). The overall result is decidedly uneven: there’s most certainly something for everyone but the lack of an overarching vision is readily apparent.

Metaphorically, likely unintentionally, the first bit of music aptly describes what follows. A Middle East meets “West” snippet from the divine chordal beauty found in Antonin Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony (“Largo,” frequently described as “Going Home” in reference to the Negro spiritual melody that serves as the main subject) concludes its brief span with a bitter lack of resolution (not the composer’s) even as a steely electronic wail works its way around the Berlin Philharmonic’s dulcet tone. There’s no joke, but the uneasy sense that the world we are about to enter will be just as confiscated and sour becomes spot-on foreshadowing.

The conceit is simple and promising: a bumbling quartet of British Muslims is planning a jihad that will wreak havoc on the public and send all of the idealistic perpetrators to the “top floor” with smiles on their variously bearded faces. 

Let the belly laughs and mayhem begin.

The sight gags do evoke some chuckles. The action culminates in the running of the London Marathon where the lads play Mr. Dressup for “The Fun Run” portion. Whether ostrich, bear or upside down clown, these zany men—decked out in vastly oversized costumes with “gear” beneath—should melt right into the crowd of thousands, then await their turn to cellphone themselves and “runnersby” to blessed oblivion. Employing a Puffin chat room to make their plans anonymously in cyberspace hits is giggle target; fighting/not-fighting with equally colourful water pistols (it’s literally fun for the whole family) was likely more of a hoot for the performers than the crowd.

With such a storied and variety-laden, er, body of work, in the public’s stream of consciousness (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) the jog-squat silly walk is as borrowed as the symphony. The bawdy bits (playing the queer card to avoid detection of the coming fireworks) seem decidedly faux; having an off-camera “wee in yer gob” to demonstrate the mantra of submissiveness leaves an additional bad taste where a delicately shot scene could have wordlessly morphed into a carefully aimed zinger.

The principals do their best to keep the early pace moving ahead. Playing Omar the ringleader, Riz Ahmed tosses off his multi-lingual lines with flair, but takes on a wholly different persona when at home with “liberated” wife (Preeya Kalidas) and tall-tale loving son (Mohammad Aqil). Since his spouse is fully apprised of what’s in store, there’s a curious lack of tension as the point of no return approaches.

Kayvan Novak’s expressive visage creates a wonderfully nuanced Waj—don’t miss his cellphone portrait as he completely redecorates a besieged café. Fessal the terrorist-who’s-not-quite-ready-to-leave-the-planet is done up to a T thanks to Adeel Akhtar’s inner conscience. Of the entire crew, he’s the closest both in performance and writing to the unwitting simplicity and loyalty that served John Steinbeck so well with Mac and the Boys. A much larger helping of that sort of characterization could have lifted this production to a far higher level. The token born-again Caucasian—Nigel Lindsay blusters with conviction—is appropriately inventive, rather like ideas-guy Moe from The Three Stooges—never shy to brandish his solid cranium when trying to keep “Shemp” in line.

Last to the dance (but the only one who really knows how to effectively rap and rhyme—disenfranchised Pakistani style) comes in the talented personage of Arsher Ali.

A special shout out goes to Lol Crawley’s superb cinematography: whether hand held, grainy night vision, long establishing or penetrating close-up shots, the eye is forever engaged.

With so much possibility, Morris’ decision to let a series of sketches lead the way could have been acceptable (the weak ones are over so fast, they’re hardly noticeable). What grates, then—as time goes on, pushing the comedy into the cinema lobby as tragedy floods the screen—is the too-close-to-home reality of splattered body parts coming to markets, undergrounds or hotels near you. That that is still no laughing matter was the most convincing truth from these four desperate lions (and their keepers) with no kingdom to call their own. JWR

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