Four Lions

15 May 2010

Much has been made of the fact that Chris Morris, the satirist behind the sketch comedies Blue Jam (1997) and Jam (2000), the news-bulletin parodies On the Hour (1991) and The Day Today (1994), and perhaps most notably the faux-anti-paedophile campaign special Brass Eye (1997 and 2001), spent three years researching his debut feature film Four Lions.

It's almost as if critics have anticipated – if they are not simply reacting to – the controversy the film has caused since its May 7 UK release. Unwarranted or not, accusations of Islamophobia, racism, political incorrectness and bad taste have certainly met the film. On the day of its release, the BBC reported that some families, whose relatives were killed in the 7/7 suicide bomb attacks in 2005, have urged the public to boycott the film.

Critically, then, a note on how much research apparently went into the film seems intended to counter any such accusations and to dilute any controversy. As if to justify his decision to turn to terrorism – of all things – for his latest send-up, Morris himself asserts, “In three years of research, I have spoken to terrorism experts, imams, police, secret services and hundreds of Muslims. Even those who have fought jihad report the frequency of farce.”

The film focuses on five Muslims in a north Yorkshire town – Omar (Riz Ahmed), Waj (Kayvan Novak), Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), white-convert Barry (Nigel Lindsay) and Hassan (Arsher Ali) – all of whom, through the course of the film, come to plan a suicide attack on the London Marathon.

The plan itself, to hit the marathon by disguising their bombs and intentions with ludicrous fancy dress costumes, arises at the end of a succession of failed attempts by the group to find a suitable outlet for their radical beliefs. (In actual fact, the group do not fail to find outlets for their beliefs, they fail to find an outlet that accommodates both their beliefs and their aching stupidity.) Whilst Omar and Waj travel to a mujahideen training camp in Pakistan, only to be sent home prematurely due to a grievous error that results in them blowing up their own base, Barry recruits Hassan to the cause after the latter makes a tit of himself at a public debate; Faisal, meanwhile, experiments with explosives and blows up a crow.

When asked if he was concerned about the response to the film during the Q&A session that followed the film's premiere at the Bradford International Film Festival, Morris said, “I'm not out to cause offence. Going forward into a subject I'm trying to increase understanding.”

At the outset, then, we should note that Four Lions does not increase understanding.

One journalist, writing for The Guardian, notes that the film is “the first comedy clear enough on the subtleties of the Muslim experience to satirise it properly.” Because Morris's film focuses on stupidity itself and not religious or terrorist doctrine, she suggests, the film resists racism or political incorrectness. The same reviewer also highlights the film's attempts to portray the Muslim community as multi-faceted, by including conflicting internal ideologies otherwise overlooked by the western media, which brands Islam largely as a harmonious unity.

This is true: in Four Lions, Omar is the liberalised Muslim assimilated in western culture with his emancipated wife Sofia (Preeyer Kiladis) and son. Meanwhile, his cousin Ahmed (Wasim Zakir), a devout fundamentalist, refuses to step in the same room as Sofia, as per Muslim tradition. As the sequence that accompanies the end credits makes clear, the film's key subversion of filmic and media stereotypes lies in the fact that it is Omar who is the suicide bomber, while Ahmed is innocent.

While the film hints at uncomfortable truths, though, such as terrorism carried out by people fully assimilated in the culture they oppose, the film offers little in the way of investigating or understanding what kind of social contradictions might be at work here.

The Guardian review already mentioned concludes that the film's “subversions mean that among the many groups targeted for mockery in this film – the police, Muslims, terrorists, converts and more – are the viewers, whose own prejudices are exposed.”

Is that the point, then? That we're all stupid? If so, Morris has made a film for which he could have made any particular group his target and still maintained a strong sense of in-on-the-joke cheap irony. But he didn't: he made a film about a specific group of characters that relate to a specific social context. But he does not wish to cause offence...
In his Sight & Sound review of the film (it's Film of the Month in their June issue), Ben Walters notes that “it's hard to take entirely seriously radical guerrillas who communicate via cartoon avatars on a website called PuffinParty”. We may also say that it's hard to take entirely seriously a filmmaker whose message is how stupid we all are when the majority of his film relies on in-joke exclusivity. Indeed, if the berks in the cinema aren't laughing directly at what they (wrongly) assume is racial stereotypes, then they're laughing at... their own stupidity?

The comedy of Four Lions is cynical. For all the research carried out on his subject, Morris's film is largely one-note. Many of the physical and visual gags – the obvious one being that in which Faisal accidentally blows himself up (“one sheep was killed in the making of this film”, we're told at the end credits) – are meant to shock, but there is no emotional anchor to make their apparently inherent hilarity rich enough to linger.

The verbal gags, meanwhile, are hit-and-miss. Most of them are again one-note: a pattern emerges quite early on, in which Morris's largely unsympathetic, beyond-stupid cretins fire off a string of long-winded, unusually-worded insults that take on a why-use-three-words-when-thirty-will-do verbosity and velocity. Whether people find this funny or not – and many do – it's quite predictable. Over the course of a feature film, it becomes dull. Having characters occasionally mouth their vulgarities in Urdu with subtitles does little to disguise the creative transparency.

It's impossible to take anything in this film seriously. None of the humour is grounded or nuanced; no amount of loud cacophonies can hide its lack of spontaneity. Just because the film is a comedy does not mean it gets a pass for neglecting the essentially serious subject matter at hand. In this sense, the film is a contradiction, given the Morris quotes already mentioned here.

To his credit, Philip French of The Observer has offered a more sober assessment of the film: “Like that other fashionable movie comedian, Sacha Baron Cohen, who also made his name exposing the gullibility of both the kindly disposed and the deeply prejudiced, Morris's TV hoaxes have confirmed his low opinion of humanity.” His latest work does nothing to change this view.

Comedy isn't an illegitimate or lower form of art. It does have the potential and purpose to highlight the absurd aspects of life's darker moments. But Four Lions, as Philip French rightly notes, offers a low opinion of not only everyday people, it deliberately does not offer any truthful analysis or way out of such idiocy. Morris plays everything for laughs here, to the point where even a more somber denouement seems merely perfunctory, to combat all of the criticisms already by that point applicable to the film.