Unpacking jokes is tedious work. There’s an oxymoronic “generous hoarding instinct” that sets in — you want to ingest the humor while also disseminating it, regardless of whether or not anyone wants to hear the rehash. Listen to this one! Oh, wait — here’s another! Ok, last time, I swear. Writing about comedy involves a lot of forest-through-the-trees-type moments; attending to the lines, rather than the story — let alone the “message” — can be tough. After exiting the theater from a funny movie and sitting down to read my scrawl, I’m always disappointed by what I’ve chosen to scribble out. There are pages upon pages of chicken scratch to decipher — void of analysis, blackened with greedily transcribed jokes. When there’s something larger at stake than just humor — political satire, say — this habit becomes all the more embarrassing.
That’s how I felt after Four Lions, Christopher Morris’s debut feature film — a Jihadist parody — now playing at the Angelika. Morris, a writer, director and actor known in England as the anchor of spoof news programs, such as The Day Show and Brass Eye, has marked his territory as an irreverent metabolizer of current affairs and media hysterics. Four Lions, the product of years’ worth of research and editing, follows a group of Islamist terrorists from Sheffield, England to scabbed-over Afghanistan and back again. There’s heavy stuff here, but it’s wrought with so many gags that focusing on anything but the quote-worthy one-liners and slapstick lunacy feels impossible.
As for the cast, sure they’re suicide bombers, but they operate like a last-string soccer team whose only goals are self-inflicted. M.V.P. Omar (Riz Ahmed) is a family man with an adoring wife and a charming son; his bright eyes and quick wit betray any sense of patience, as it’s constantly chipped away at by his band of blokes. Cleary, he’s too smart for this shit. Nigel Lindsay plays Barry, a white Muslim convert with a temper shorter than any of his jury-rigged fuses. He urges the others to eat their SIM cards to trick “the satellites” and is convinced that only by bombing a Mosque can they ignite a productive Islam uprising. The ever-erring, always-idiotic Fessal (Adeel Akhtar) assumes an IRA accent while buying chemicals and orders Silver Nitrate off Amazon. Waj (Kayvan Novak) is our wise fool; his mere inclusion within the already hapless group is meant to spur comic effects, but it’s also a bit terrifying, even within such a moronic context. The fumbling felons pick up Hassan (Arsher Ali), a self-proclaimed rapper and devoted 2Pac fan, when he stages a fake bombing in a lecture hall. At every moment, you’re urged to think to yourself, Hey! These really are just a bunch of guys in a room!
Missile launchers are fired backwards. Adidas tear-away pants peak out beneath traditional throbes — not unrealistic, but still funny. Cursing is anatomically specific and zoologically astute: “floppy camel sphincter” is a representative insult. They whip their heads back and forth until dizzy, blurring their features in an attempt to trick the face recognition software they fear is omnipresent. They’re always piling into — and spilling out of — a tinny, little car, like an insane clown posse (literally: one of them really is dressed in an upside-down Bozo costume for the last quarter of the film, and obviously these guys are all insane). The spectrum of humor here is vast, and when the jokes fall flat they pancake out totally. It seemed too obvious, for instance, to have so many threatening conversations punctuated with the disjointed “peace be with you.” Also: the full minutes spent arguing over the direction of Mecca (“East is that way, bro!”)? It felt like Jon Stewart filler.
Mostly though, the quality of the comedy is excellent and relentless. The whole film buzzes with high-frequency quips, and the plot hums along accordingly. If anything, it’s exhausting. You hang on every word; it’s inspirationally tiring. You don’t want to miss anything, but you also always want a break, just for a minute. It’s too late for this, but Four Lions — great as it is — might have made for an even better web series. Short, sweet, and streamable, it could have been a serialized “event” of sorts, something to anticipate, savor, digest, and forget until the next week — something to watch after you’ve gotten your Guardian fix for the day.