David: I don’t intend to make a habit of writing posts to respond to stray comments, but we’re a relatively new site, short on content, so I figure what the hell! Here’s what someone who calls themselves moviegeek said in the comments to one of our recent Four Lions posts:
I really wanted to like Four Lions… but sadly a brave film doesn’t necessarily make it a good one.
Chris Morris’s constant attempts to turn it into a slapstick comedy undermines the important message behind the film and dilutes it all into a superficial exercise.
Not a disaster, but it could have been so much better…
Say it Mean Girls style – “Wrong. So Wrong.”
Moviegeek’s review of the movie continues along similar lines, arguing that the film is superficial and incoherent, and that its characters are too stupid to be believable. Comedian Richard Herring raised similar concerns in his response to the film, which I quoted in the Script Rehearsal post for this movie, so I’m actually quite happy to deal with these complaints here.
For me, the slapstick element doesn’t “undermine” Four Lions; on the contrary, the broader comedy is the heart of the film! The question is not just what we’re laughing at here, but how we’re laughing. Most of the comedy of Morris’ film, be it verbal or physical, comes at the expense of the characters, whether they’re devout Muslim scholars, half-witted terrorists or inept hostage negotiators. The interesting thing here is that we’re only allowed to get close enough to grow attached to one group of characters – the fucking terrorists. So while we might still laugh as they blow themselves up while running away from sheep, or while they FAIL AT RAP, we laugh in the same way we might laugh at some of our favourite comedy idiots.
Now I’ve got to be careful here, because we clearly laugh at each of our Lions in a slightly different way. I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that Waj and Faisal are portrayed in a way that’s hard to empathise with. Faisal seems to be less self-aware than his own wooly hat, while Waj is a hulking plonker who can’t tell the difference between rabbits and chickens. No one thinks of themselves this way, even if they are bloody thick, right? So with these guys, we’re laughing at people who we imagine ourselves superior to – “Check it out, guy wants to put a bomb on a crow!”
Barry’s not just an imbecile, he’s a really fucking loud imbecile, but I think we’ve all acted a little like he does in this movie, or that we at least know someone who has. He’s your mate who isn’t the top dog but who thinks he should be, and who consequently embarrasses himself trying to get there. Hassan’s a dafty too, but like Barry his main crime (aside from scheming to blow people up!) is trying too hard – he doesn’t want to be the big man, he just wants to seem a bit dangerous and exciting an 4REAL mostly. As with Barry, I think we laugh at Hassan’s stupidity while cringing a little. No one wants to be those guys either, but it’s a real possibility, and the goofier slapstick underlines that nicely. It’s a crude form of comedy, sure, but like the verbal goofs that run through the film it’s all about human clumsiness and ineptitude. What’s more, these broad comedy flourishes underline the universal stupidity of these characters without obliviating the specifics of race and culture, which is precisely the quality I wanted to praise when I wrote about Four Lions first time round.
But what about Omar? Unlike his friends, he seems to be a reasonably functional, well-rounded human being with a nice family, so why the fuck is he leading this bunch of imbeciles on a suicide mission? Actor Riz Ahmed thinks that Omar acts like he’s playing a massive joke on the whole world, which makes sense to me. There’s a certain cheeky superiority to the way Omar deals with everyone from his pious brother to his workmates, but that doesn’t mean that Omar’s not serious about his cause. Indeed, of all the Lions, he’s the one who comes closest to articulating an actual reason for his actions, though even his speeches don’t add up to anything more than garbled agit-prop. Omar also fronts one of the most outrageous bits of slapstick in the film, in which he makes a spectacular arse out of himself while trying to be the hero:
You could argue that this is just too much, and that the very inclusion of scenes like this one takes away from whatever Chris Morris can do, but I don’t think so. For starters, you don’t really want to get into an argument about whether an incident like this “could really happen” – it’s physically possible, Chris Morris has a stack of similar anecdotes that he likes to bring out in defence of the film, and making sweeping pronouncements either way tends to make you sound like an overeager blowhard. What’s more, by having the most relatable of the main characters fuck up quite so gloriously, Morris is actually doing something quite subtle and clever here. Be honest with yourself: if you decided to “go to war”, your reasons would probably be pretty stupid, and your biggest gestures would backfire horribly. Your cause might be different, you might fuck up in a different way, but in the end you’re probably not the great hero you’d want to be: most likely you’re a normal person, like me, or like Omar, and as such your efforts would tend towards the ridiculous.
So what of Richard Herring‘s complaint that “The terrorists were just a bit too stupid and yet then suddenly self-aware enough to understand the inconsistencies in their position”? Well, he’s probably talking about Omar, Waj and Hassan here, since they all have a wee wobble in the film’s final act. Waj and Hassan are acting perfectly in character there – Waj gets himself in a tangle and let’s Omar make his mind up for him, while Hassan… well, he probably never thought he’d actually have to go through with it, you know? Which leaves us with Omar again. It seems like he should have thought about the fact that he was manipulating Waj before they get to their target destination, but sometimes we don’t get that we’re being dicks until someone (in this case, Barry) throws it back in our face.
Thinking about this a bit more, it occurs to me that slapstick normally involves consequence-free violence. Four Lions is all about consequences, but this strikes me as being a deliberate subversion of the form, and it’s this rush of inescapable reality that makes Omar’s deliberations in the final section of the film so oddly affecting…