Four Lions
Directed by Chris Morris
Screenplay by Chris Morris, Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain
Starring Riz Ahmed, Arsher Ali, Nigel Lindsay, Kayvan Novak, Adeel Akhtar

Now this is what I call a challenging comedy.  For his feature film debut, British comedian Chris Morris (who has had an extensive career writing and performing for television and the radio) tackles the subject of Islamic extremism, following a cell of aspiring suicide bombers with plans to stage a deadly attack during the London Marathon.

How does Morris make this seemingly humorless premise hilarious?  Mainly by just forging ahead and not getting hung up on whether it’s okay for him to be making this movie.  That attitude may have gotten him in trouble if he was any less skilled a satirist, but he quickly establishes his comic chops in the opening scene, which finds the terrorists trying and failing to make their own jihadist video.  As in last year’s brilliant British political satire In the Loop, much the humor of Four Lions emerges from the characters’ general obliviousness to their own shortcomings and profound misunderstanding of the world around them.  (It’s not unlike the approach Norman Lear took years and years ago on All in the Family.)  At the same time though, they’re not total morons (well, okay, one or two of them are); they’re committed idealists who are just really, really, really bad at their jobs.  The difficult trick that Moore and his ensemble accomplish is making the characters likable buffoons without ever falling over the edge into total caricature or, even worse, chasing after the viewer’s sympathy.  For example, the film’s central character Omar (terrifically played by Riz Ahmed) is depicted as an average family man whose wife and young son fully support his decision to blow himself up.  (In one of the movies funniest moments, Omar re-interprets the plot of Disney’s The Lion King to work as an analogy that will teach his kid the glories of martyrdom.)  Unlike a lot of Hollywood comedies, Four Lions never equivocates or pulls its punches out of fear of alienating the audience.  The final act in particular is genuinely shocking and may strike some as being tonally inconsistent with the rest of the movie.  But, in fact, Morris lays the groundwork for the ending quite effectively, taking care to highlight the consequences (both comic and otherwise) of the characters’ behavior throughout.  My only real quibble with the film is that it lacks a character who can function as a more moderate Muslim voice and call the characters out on their misguided beliefs.  (Omar does have a deeply religious brother who decries his choice, but he’s shown to have his own extremist tendencies, like refusing to talk to women directly and forcing his wife and her friends to sit together in a cramped closet when he invites his prayer group over.)  Then again, shoehorning a straight man into the proceedings might have upset the delicate comic balance of the movie.  Ultimately, it’s clear that we the audience are meant to be the moderates, laughing at the general idiocy of zealots and religious extremism.  In that way, Four Lions isn’t just the funniest movie of the year–it’s also one of the smartest.

Four Lions opens in limited release today.  Visit the official website for more information.