"I can prove to you that rape is funny. Picture Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd."
What won't you laugh at? If this question has ever popped into your head, allow me to introduce a wonderful litmus test called Four Lions. One of the most original, hilarious, and challenging movies I've seen in years is a farce about extremist Muslims planning a terrorist attack.
Director Christopher Morris and co-writers Simon Blackwell, Jesse Armstrong, and Sam Bain have turned what most might consider a pack of unsympathetic characters into complex allegories for religious fundamentalism of all stripes, showcasing the frightening commitment and inherent silliness of such life choices.
Riz Ahmed stars as Omar, a young follower of Islam living in London with his wife, Sofia (Preeya Kalidas), and son, Mahmood (Mohammad Aquil)--to whom he recounts Disney's The Lion King as a tale of Jihad in lieu of traditional bedtime stories. Omar and his three close friends dream of one day stepping up to the big leagues:Mujahideen training for becoming proper suicide bombers. They get their chance when his uncle, Imran (Karl Seth), invites Omar and the comically stupid Waj (Kayvan Novak) to Pakistan. They leave behind radical publicity whore Barry (Nigel Lindsay) and devout dim-bulb Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), who conspire to start a splinter group out of spite.
In the desert, Omar and Waj find their cell-phones-and-sass-loving modernity rejected by Imran's serious-minded compatriots. They leave the duo at camp during a meeting with Osama bin Laden. Bored and curious, our Omar plays around with the cell's cool weaponry and mistakenly blows up his hosts and the leader of al-Qaeda with a rocket. Imbued with a new sense of purpose (while also trying to shake this incredible embarrassment), Omar and Waj return to London to make their own grand statement for the cause.
They discover that Barry has recruited a hot-headed college student named Hassan (Arsher Ali) to help them blow up a mosque. Omar argues that such an act would radicalize conservative Muslims against their extremist counterparts, and that attacking mainstream Western culture would be far more effective. The group's rift widens further, leading to the kind of end-of-second-act break-up common in many buddy-cop/heist movies. In this case, when the gang reconciles near the end and comes together for the big job, it's not to steal diamonds or take down a drug kingpin--it's to set off multiple explosions during a charity marathon.
If that sounds horrific to you, I assure you it was just as horrific to me--in principle. In execution, Morris and company manage the impossible: playing several conflicting emotions as both high-stakes drama and severely twisted comedy. Over the course of Four Lions, it becomes clear that Omar and his gang are simply lost and underprivileged. Their devotion to radical Islam is a bi-product of religious upbringing and revenge against a system they perceive to be oppressive and racist. The only difference between them and an L.A. street gang is that California hoods would likely never have come close to a sit-down with bin Laden.
The writing is simultaneously funny and poignant, with hard social issues bubbling to the surface during scenes that recall The Three Stooges. The film paints a very interesting picture of the difference between reality and perception in the way it treats Omar's gang's actions. For instance, Barry is ridiculed for a "message" he'd sent years before, baking a cake in the shape of the Twin Towers and placing it outside a synagogue on 9/11. It's at the same time a ridiculous image dreamt up by an idiot, and a horrifying one for anybody who doesn't know that the person behind it is an idiot.
Four Lions' cast is exceptional. I defy anyone to watch Ahmed's performance and not walk away touched. He brings charisma and conflict to Omar that's suggested on the page but brought to tragic life in the flesh. The scenes in which he tells his son about The Lion King are sweet, and it doesn't register right away that he's indoctrinating a new generation of holy warriors. Ahmed made me believe that if Omar's pride and circumstances had been just the slightest bit different, he would have made an outstanding model of how modernity and religion might coexist.
I was also bowled over by Lindsay's turn as Barry, the big, dumb preacher whose lack of self-awareness often runs head-first into his pride--resulting in confusion and bloody noses. He's like a principled version of Family Guy's Peter Griffin. The film's biggest surprise, though, is Novak. For most of the movie, Waj is the stupid-beyond-belief comic foil, but as Four Lions descends deeper into seriousness, it becomes clear that Waj is truly an innocent caught up in peer pressure and a lack of attention to severe mental issues. The circumstances of his final scene are so ludicrous and sad that I was on the verge of tears.
Four Lions is not an easy film to recommend. The premise will rub some people the wrong way, understandably. But the filmmakers aren't just playing around here to get shock-laughs. This is a serious piece of political satire on par, in my opinion, with Dr. Strangelove and In the Loop (with which this would make a terrific double-feature). Morris doesn't give us easy, Apu-sounding terrorists to contend with; his main characters sound more like The Beatles. They have the same big questions about life, afterlife, and society as people all over the world. If the fact that we can't all find enough common ground to keep from killing each other over land, myths, and power is the sick joke of our species, Four Lions is the perfect telling of that joke.