Legend has it that filmmaker Stanley Kubrick originally wanted Peter Sellers to perform at least six or seven roles in Dr. Strangelove, but ultimately decided his Cold War satire would play better as a lunatic free-for-all, with lots of distinct, clashing comic types.
Variety is the spice of life properly mocked, he figured. (Sellers eventually played three parts.)
Too bad British filmmaker Chris Morris didn’t get the memo. His new comedy has a provocative, ticklish premise – five North England Muslims become suicide bombers, but can’t decide who or what to take with them.
That should be good for tons of uncomfortable laughs, as our would-be martyrs sulk about Sheffield, sorting through grievances. How about the old crone with the Thatcher beehive who wraps our fish and chips in the Daily Mail?
Unfortunately, Morris’s Four Lions doesn’t get around much. The terrorists – Omar, Waj, Barry, Faisal and Hassan – keep to themselves, exchanging colourful insults (“You sloppy camel sphincter.”). The actors, particularly Nigel Lindsay ( Rome) as Barry/Azzam Al-Britani, a bristling white convert to Islam, are an energetic lot. And there are a few bright comic explosions.
But even the funny stuff here never feels quite genuine. Or true to character. We knew watching Dr. Strangelove that the crazed military types, George C. Scott’s Buck Turgidson and Sterling Hayden’s Jack D. Ripper, were liberal punching bags. Still, they had their own daft integrity. We liked them, regardless of our politics.
Whereas the Sheffield Five are never more than morons – ventriloquist’s dummies who are never given the opportunity to talk back. They snipe and whine, yell and scream. Inevitably, a grinding claustrophobia sets in. After a while, we feel like we’re trapped in a broken jihad with the Five Stooges.
Four Lions might have been a delicious social comedy, the kind of homespun Little England entertainment Ealing Studios knocked off in the fifties, if our terrorists in the course of their travels bumped into a few enterprising scene-stealers. If, say, Sidney James and Alfie Bass from The Lavender Hill Mob tried to sell them ammonium nitrate for their deadly homemade bombs.
It also would’ve helped if Morris, who got his start making BBC 2 public-affairs spoofs ( The Day Today and Brass Eye) enjoyed his characters’ company, or if he was at least brave or reckless enough to explore their paranoia.
Instead, Four Lions is an ostensibly daring comedy made safe (defanged even) by the filmmakers’ depiction of terrorists as blundering, simple-minded fools – not even responsible for what they’re doing. That the one overt racist in the terrorist cell, Al-Britani, is white provides more evidence of the filmmakers’ caution and deceit.
True comedy is never this careful. For all its angry shouting, Four Lions is a muzzled and tranquilized affair.
- Directed by Chris Morris
- Written by Chris Morris, Sam Bain, Jesse Armstrong and Simon Blackwell
- Starring Riz Ahmed, Kayvan Novak, Nigel Lindsay and Adeel Akhtar
- Classification: 14A
Special to The Globe and Mail