It’s Not Funny: Four Lions
May 27, 2010
After a safehouse is compromised, five would-be suicide bomber Jihadists in Sheffield must transport their explosives to an allotment. The car predictably breaks down (“Jewish sparkplugs”), and the most outspoken of the group, Barry (Nigel Lindsay), suggests everyone run ‘fast but smooth’, leading the men to run while squatting across a street. One of them, the peculiarly simple Fessal (Adeel Akhtar) gets lost and winds up running in staggered lines in a nearby field with some sheep. Three of the others film him as they laugh and mock him, encouraging him to leap a stone fence. He does, and in a long shot, we see him trip over on landing and, as the flock of sheep run away, turn instantly into a cloud of smoke. It’s a darkly funny moment, but only for a second, as when the shock wears off you’re left with the sad, tragedy of it all. Fessal was an idiot, to be sure, but aside from his desire to blow himself and civilians along with him, he was a not malevolent one. When the group’s leader, Omar (Riz Ahmed), berates the others, they attempt to shift the blame, and when they decide he is technically a martyr (for his death had to mean something, right?), Barry steps up and takes credit. It’s a martyrdom because he killed a sheep, and thus disrupted the ‘system’, he rationalizes. It’s the first moment the film truly jumps from broad, slapstick farce into something deeper and sadder, and that strange, awkward mood courses through the remainder. The mix of slapstick and idiotic discussions on semantics is all done very well throughout the running time of Chris Morris’ Four Lions, and there’s no doubt that it is a very funny movie. The audience I saw it with certainly laughed all the way through, so the poster which features fifteen quotes from critics that all say the one word “Funny” is not technically misleading. However, when the finale ramped up the sad, tragic nature of the story and the characters, it was somewhat uncomfortable to find how many people were still laughing.
Omar is a security guard at a shopping centre, where he tolerates his co-worker’s insane dribble about his running regiment with affectionate amusement. He has a wife, Sophie, and a young son, to whom he explains the importance of his actions and Jihad through an altered retelling of The Lion King. It’s all rather disturbing on an objective level, but it doesn’t hit you until you take a step back, so charming and calmly the scenes are played. When Omar’s brother, a peaceful but hardcore fundamentalist Muslim turns up and refuses to enter a room with a woman (his constant reinterpretations of the Koran lead to an ever-changing code of behaviour), he’s cheerfully mocked and sprayed down with a water pistol. Omar is essentially the straight man of the group. Fairly level headed and pretty clever but not quite good enough to see through the moments of pressure. An offhand comment about a relative killed by a bomb is the only real clue to his motivation. Indeed, the reasons for all of the members of this most inept of terrorist cells are never explicitly stated, but some do come through in character. Barry is a loud-mouthed blowhard, constantly angry at everyone but himself when he fails at anything, as well as being very competitive with Omar over the leadership of the group. Hassan (Arsher Ali) is a young wanna-be rapper who sees himself as a natural successor to Tupac. And then there’s Waj (Kayvan Novak), so simple and childlike that he’s convinced of his purpose by the comparison to martyrdom to a queue-jump at Alton Towers (a theme park, NOT a fun fair). It’s with Waj that the true tragedy comes through. Omar is constantly exasperated with Waj’s idiocy, but he has a real affection for him in a big-brother sort of way, but can’t see until it’s too late that he’s taken him down a path he doesn’t really want to go and could never fully understand anyway.
I don’t mean to make this sound deathly (har) serious, because it is in fact very funny. The comedy veers from absurd dialogue to broad physical farce. It’s not particularly groundbreaking, but it’s very well done. Case in point, the bazooka gag is so obvious that it’s been done before in a Pauly Shore movie. The humour less from the idea of holding the tube the wrong way round than it does from the jarring physical nature of the force of the round flying out the back and tossing the unbalanced shooter like a rag doll, all of which is only compounded by the outlandish consequences of the misfire. There’s a bomb-strapped crow, a brilliant tossed-off sight gag of women in a cupboard, and a poorly timed heimlich manoeuvre. The jokes often move beyond just the one level, as when Omar is taping his video and ranting about the Western consumers who eat Big Macs only to be interrupted by Waj, exclaiming that the consumers are obviously idiots because why go to McDonalds when Chicken Cottage offers halal meat and better meal deals. They’re all steeped in British culture, for they all are British, and Morris is always keen for us to remember those details. A sing-along to Toploader is both funny and telling for reasons beyond the simply absurd.
That’s the real achievement of Morris and the writers (Morris himself along with Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain). Broad, farcical satire can be pointed at any situation, and some might have been happy to let the controversial, taboo nature of the subject matter work on its own. It’s easier to point and laugh at evil when you downgrade it to one-dimensional idiocy (and, indeed, simplistic terms like ‘evil’). That takes the sting out of the threat and the fear out of the terrifying. When the plot predictably goes awry, and the men are flailing around London dressed in costumes (including a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle), such an intrinsically funny image is drenched in pathos. When those images are replayed during the credits through CCTV footage, it’s difficult not to see it as simply pathetic and tragic. Not that it’s wrong to laugh, but when Waj complains nervously that he’s confused, it’s hard not to feel real sympathy. We’d like to think we can laugh at these men who wish to inflict such horrors on our society, but at some point it’s just not funny. The fact that it’s because we feel for them and not for the real-life victims of the attacks that inspired these characters is surprising. And perhaps, for some audience members at least, a little confusing.