Film review: Four Lions
A film that laughs at suicide bombers but doesn't offend anyone? Chris Morris's big screen debut is the mouse that didn't roar, says Fred Rowson
Last year, when the political satire In The Loop was released, Mark Kermode interviewed Alistair Campbell on The Culture Show, and asked for his reactions to the film. Campbell was, for the most part, a jocular interviewee and managed to take lots of the film's jokes on the chin, even whilst vehemently denying that politics is the same as the venal business depicted in the movie. Perhaps the publicity department charged with promoting the potential time-bomb that is Four Lions decided to take a leaf from the same publicity manual. In every other interview that director Chris Morris has given prior to the film's release, he has emphasised the lengths to which he has gone to screen the film (which charts the mishaps of four idiotic suicide bombers – no points for guessing the ending) for Muslim audiences. Everywhere, it seems, from a Bradford Mosque to a Guantanamo mess hall has had a private viewing of the movie. In going to these extreme lengths to ensure that nobody is offended, Morris has defeated himself twice. First of all, he's embarrassed himself; nobody has thus far raised a stink about Four Lions. It seems as if nobody cares. More damagingly, he has undone his film's central argument.
Four Lions wants to tell its audience that suicide bombers – like the rest of us – are buffoons, and that we can laugh at them just as hard as we laugh at every other Vicky Pollard and David Brent (Gavin and Stacey's Julia Davis plays one of the film's few non-Muslim characters, and she's stupider than the rest of them). Except that, with Morris's extensive drive to screen Four Lions to anyone with the potential to be mildly provoked, he's tacitly admitting that, actually, it might not be cool to giggle at suicide bombers. Perhaps this fundamental (ha) contradiction is why the film isn't actually that funny. This might sound unfair. Four Lions has its share of funny jokes, no doubt. However, ultimately, it's not down to Chris Morris to tell us that martyrdom is laughable – that's self evident.
Added to this are several other factors that stopped the film from being quite the laugh-a-minute thrill ride that it's been made out as elsewhere. Four Lions is badly constructed. And I mean really badly made. The script is, structurally, all over the place with not only several scenes but several sequences that could go entirely; the trip to Pakistan, for one, seems like it's in there only because it's supposed to be funny. Except it's not that funny. It leads up to a final gag in the credits of the film that is so dunderheaded that you'll leave the cinema feeling as if you've been in the company of some 14-year-old boys. Moreover, the film is poorly shot, with weird zooming establishing shots and jagged editing. Perhaps Morris was going for some kind of cinema verité vibe, but honestly he should have had enough respect for his subject material to go for something more sophisticated than the scissors-and-glue approach.
Then there's TV. And this is really the deal breaker. It says a lot that in the same month as Four Lions was released, South Park (a series that has been on air for 13 years) can have an episode about Islamic Extremism censored, and its creators receive death threats. Perhaps whoever sent those threats isn't sending them to Morris because they've realised that he's just not as funny. Perhaps if one of the hundreds of test-screeners had found Four Lions deeply, abhorrently offensive then Morris might have been onto something. If he'd skipped to the papers with tales of horrified audiences then I'd have been interested. That's a film I'd like to see. As it is, Four Lions plays it as safe as can be. Morris once commented that he thought Have I Got News For You gave the establishment a big warm hug as far as its satirical bite was concerned. I, for one, can see little difference between that and Four Lions. All that is clear is that Morris is better off back on the telly.