There's nothing funny about suicide bombers, right?
There is if you ask Chris Morris, the British satirist who attempts to carve out a new niche -- jihadist buddy romp -- with his debut feature, "Four Lions." The film, which won rave reviews at the Sundance and South by Southwest film festivals in 2010, finally gets a modest Twin Cities premiere Friday at St. Anthony Main Theatre. But with terrorism still serving as the menace du jour, "Four Lions" is stirring up some obligatory controversy. Is it OK to LOL over IEDs?
At an elevator-pitch level, "Four Lions" sounds like a film absolutely begging to offend. The plot finds a group of knockabout jihadists trying their damnedest to suicide-bomb the London Marathon. Explosives-laden crows, a Chewbacca execution and general befuddlement are all byproducts of Morris' inept terror cell. These men are imbecilic in their bumbling quest for martyrdom, yet at the same time strangely endearing. It may feel like comic fantasy, but "Four Lions" is rooted in the buffoonery of honest-to-goodness terrorists.
Wading through the glut of post-9/11 media coverage of terrorism, Morris noticed a subtle trend of blundering behavior. Be it Khalid Sheikh Mohammed fussing over whether he'd look fat in an interview or al-Qaeda accidently sinking its own boat in Yemen, there were elements of folly among the horror. "I thought there would have been very interesting conversations following those incidents," Morris said.
With "Four Lions," this real-world ineptitude receives top billing. To safeguard against charges of Islamophobia, Morris researched terrorism for three years, speaking with experts, imams and law enforcement officials. Still, with such touchy subject matter, financing and distribution hiccups were inevitable. "I had lots of conversations with people in the States who were very keen to talk about absolutely the next thing I was going to be doing," Morris said. "But not keen to talk about how they might help out with this."
In the wake of Sundance, the public got decidedly keener. Distribution company Drafthouse Films -- a new offshoot of the famed Alamo Drafthouse Cinema theater in Austin, Texas -- pegged "Four Lions" as its flagship release, with a bicoastal U.S. launch in November. Upon its release, no less than the New York Times called the film "a shockingly hilarious, stiletto-sharp satire." Ryan Oestreich, program coordinator for the Film Society of Minneapolis/St. Paul and general manager of St. Anthony Main Theatre, says he booked the film partly because of its buzz. "We're just excited to laugh at a very serious topic," he said. "It's like, are you kidding me? That's the premise? That's the plot?"
Morris has always traded in black humor, with his celebrated British TV shows "The Day Today" and "Brass Eye" exploring such topics as cannibalism, AIDS and pedophilia. In each case, Morris approached an unapproachable subject with an air of artfulness and, yes, social responsibility.
Motives and smarts are key when handling the supremely taboo, and Morris -- along with the bulk of critics -- feels that "Four Lion's" execution was dead-on. "What's wrong is encouraging [terroristic] acts," Morris said. "I think laughing about them is often doing the opposite." The Film Society's Oestreich tends to agree. "The idea that there's a joke that will destroy humanity. ... It comes up every single time," he said, noting that objectors will know the film isn't for them. "I'm not terribly worried about a backlash; we have really intelligent moviegoers."
Imed Labidi, a lecturer in the University of Minnesota's department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature, sees audience perception as central to the film's impact, for better or for worse. Labidi, who saw and enjoyed "Four Lions," likens the film's dilemma to Dave Chappelle's exodus from Comedy Central: The comic didn't know if his viewers were laughing at or embracing the stereotypes he lampooned. "If we're looking at ridiculing stereotypes, for the experienced eye [the film] is very fruitful," Labidi said. "But for those who are already frightened -- and we have a public that is very, very scared -- they might not get that." Still, Labidi praises "Four Lions" for ushering in debate and conversation.
For Morris, his biggest validation came from his film's solid reception among Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities in England. "I was concerned that it might not be possible to satisfy a white and a brown audience at the same time," he admitted. "It felt like a major challenge."
Controversy notwithstanding, Morris' main goal was to entertain -- a feat "Four Lions" resoundingly accomplishes. Shot in a loose mockumentary style, the protagonists veer from gag to gag smoothly. Most of the jokes hit, with a debate between snipers over whether they had just killed a Chewbacca mascot or the Honey Monster among the choicest. The likability of the jihadist protagonists really sticks, with their impending martyrdom rendering the viewer more concerned than anything. Yes, their actions are evil and their minds are moronic, but the empathy they summon is undeniable. Morris said the main complaint levied against his film is that it doesn't go far enough in chastising terrorists. "In a way, that's somebody coming in and saying, 'I came into this film with a very strong view of what should happen -- and it didn't happen!'" he said. "It bounces off."
"Four Lions," at its core, is only as controversial as today's sociopolitical climate renders it. In the tradition of Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" or "M*A*S*H," it's brave enough to prod at deeper issues but errs on the side of entertainment value. If Larry, Moe and Curly stumbled upon the Qur'an and botched its lessons, you'd have "Four Lions." And that's exactly its director's aim.
"It doesn't have a reducible message; the point is to have a good evening out," Morris said. "But I think if you came out and your brain simply hadn't been stirred at all, that would have to go down as a failure."