Men at Play
By Julien Allen
In the Loop
Dir. Armando Iannucci, U.K., IFC Films
It’s been some years since Monty Python stopped being de rigueur in America, and just as Brit TV shows like Blackadder, The Office, and Da Ali G Show have tapped away with a pin hammer at the U.S. hegemony of Cheers, Friends, Seinfeld, and latterly, Curb Your Enthusiasm, British film comedy has struggled to make an impact for decades, with only reactionary fare like Mr. Bean and the odd phenomenon such as Borat registering at the U.S. box office; meanwhile the Judd Apatow stable currently seems to be averaging a film a month. However, like London buses, for which you wait interminably, only to find two arriving at once, a couple of noteworthy British comedy offerings, both of which have their origins in British television, are coming to the American public this summer: in August, the nostalgic rock ‘n’ roll movie The Boat That Rocked, featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman, and written and directed by erstwhile sitcom writer Richard Curtis (cocreator of Blackadder and, indeed, Mr Bean), will be released stateside; but first comes the superior In the Loop, Armando Iannucci’s Sundance hit starring James Gandolfini, which plays like a straightforward feature-length episode of Iannucci’s political comedy TV series The Thick of It.
In the Loop is an ammonia-scented satirical critique of those British politicians star-struck by Washington in the build-up to the Iraq war. Its targets are not Blair or Bush, who are never mentioned or portrayed, but the troubling collection of duplicitous operatives and quisling, ass-covering incompetents who worked behind the scenes to “make it happen.” Out-of-his-depth junior minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), after jumping the gun to a TV journalist about the likelihood of a conflict, is sent on a fact-finding mission to Washington to gauge the U.S. appetite (and evaluate the evidence) for war. With the arrival close behind him of the Prime Minister’s monstrous spin doctor Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), one of the three most important people in domestic UK politics, alongside the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, it soon becomes clear that the hapless and conscience-stricken Foster is operating from fairly low down on a chain of manipulation that stretches beyond even Tucker’s sphere of influence. Gandolfini plays a dove-ish U.S. general (a character inspired by Colin Powell) who has concluded, purely from an expert’s perspective rather than through any political motivation, that a war would be unwise. His performance is gun-barrel straight and much the funnier for it.
Depicting the comings and goings of the apparatchiks, their secret meetings and trysts in Washington offices and hotel rooms, on top of all hell breaking loose for Foster back home in Britain, it culminates in a delicious verbal clusterfuck at the United Nations, which fundamentally alters every character’s destiny, as well as that of the war. Until that point, the film steers a clear comic course between two basic and deadly serious viewpoints, firstly that the game of politics strangles any hope of effective policymaking, and secondly that most people making vital, life-changing decisions are unqualified and/or incompetent. The first conclusion is commonplace, the second absolutely terrifying. As such, In the Loop belongs firmly in the category of comedies designed to make you laugh at something you should really be outraged or frightened about (a category prototyped by Chaplin’s Modern Times, Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, and Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove).
The film’s success, and ultimately its lasting power, comes from making the audience laugh more than it makes them angry. It’s bound to be controversial (and no doubt perceived in some quarters as anti-American), but its most uncontroversial strength is that it is, from beginning to end, hilarious. Iannucci, interviewed by British movie magazine Sight and Sound, explained that his only ambition was to make a film as funny as This Is Spinal Tap or Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The gags are delivered on tap at sitcom pace, but have a strength and intelligence that nothing from Judd Apatow, for example, can currently compete with (the film is also much filthier than the average Apatow film and far less mawkish). Most notable is the sheer expletive virtuosity of Malcolm Tucker and his psychotic attack-dog sidekick Jamie (Paul Higgins) some of which is bound to test the MPAA’s resolve, provided that the august committee members can between them decipher the meaning of the words via the Scots accents (the services of Ian Martin the original “swearing consultant” from the TV series, have been retained). Like everything else funny in the film, the swearing relies on context and juxtaposition for effect and is a satisfying by-product of Iannucci’s trademark linguistic brio, rather than the main focus of the laughs. The skill of Iannucci’s script permits the viewer to sympathize with nearly all of the characters, no matter how mendacious, incompetent, or cowardly, because we recognize our own failings in them, and because none of them is ultimately in overall control. A satire like Robert Altman’s The Player failed as a comedy because it had no sympathy for its own characters, but this is what elevates In the Loop as a comic film—even if the laughs alone will ensure its success.
The cast members have all been doing this for years, with the exception of the American contingent: in particular Gandolfini, David Rasche and Mimi Kennedy, who slot effortlessly into the formula as if to the manor born. A special mention is required for Tom Hollander, whose five-foot-nothing frame brings to mind the headmaster in Vigo’s Zéro for Conduct, a figure of apparent authority but with the stature and credibility of a pathetic child. In the opening scenes, you cannot take your eyes off Hollander, who cements a reputation as one of Britain’s finest comic actors, following on from his delectable Mr. Collins opposite Keira Knightley’s vapid Lizzie Bennett in Joe Wright’s Abercrombie and Fitch–esque Pride and Prejudice. It is a fitting testament to Hollander’s devotion to his craft that one British broadsheet critic said of Hollander’s performance in In the Loop, “He is either a real moron, or a brilliant actor.” A minor quibble is that the bumbling Foster would surely have been yanked from the limelight as a PR liability long before the end of the film, rather than sent back to the States for a new crack at the problem. For a film that trades in the uncomfortable feeling that it is based on real events, this sounds a jarring note.
Since the era of George W Bush, one might expect the impact of this sort of comedy to have been somewhat diluted. After all, audiences watching Dr. Strangelove in 1964 might have had their paranoid sensibilities protected by the yawning gap between farce and reality. But it is sobering to contemplate how much better President Murkin Muffley deals with the prospect of nuclear Armageddon in Strangelove than George W. Bush would have done if it were really happening. As Michael Moore proved with Fahrenheit 9/11, continuing to read My Pet Goat really is beyond anything satire can muster up.
Clearly, those who mistrusted the Blair-Bush axis might have been prepared to tolerate it because of the unspoken assumption that some of the finest minds available were lurking in the shadows, making the decisions that mattered and communicating them upwards. Think again. The bleakest and most satisfying aspect of In the Loop is the effortless way in which it communicates the sheer, mind-boggling uselessness of those in power. Once upon a time this would have qualified as high farce. Now, post Bush, it becomes horrifying pseudo-documentary. We feel, deep down, that reality isn't far away. British politicians have attested in person to Iannucci that the reality is far worse. No doubt he would have found that the funniest thing of all.