Let’s be real here: The surprising thing isn’t that Four Lions didn’t show theatrically in Utah, but that it ever
showed anywhere theatrically at all.
Those who saw it at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival seemed mostly to have an identical reaction: “This movie is hilarious, but how the hell do you sell it?” This was, after all, a movie that attempted to turn jihad-ist Islamic terrorism into comedy. If you created a pie chart of the American moviegoing audience, there would be a huge chunk labeled “That’s not funny,” another huge chunk labeled “Too soon,” a thin wedge of “I don’t get it” and a microscopic portion of “Right up my alley.”
Those who fall into the latter category are going to get a savagely hilarious bunch of episodic mayhem from director Christopher Morris and a writing team including The Thick of It/In the Loop contributors Simon Blackwell and Jesse Armstrong. The focus is on a London-based terror cell nominally led by Barry (Nigel Lindsay), but where disagreements over how to take the war to the infidels seems to occupy most of their time.
Also, they’re all idiots to greater or lesser degrees. Omar (Riz Ahmed) seems to be the most lucid among them, but even he manages to blow up his own people while on a training mission in Pakistan. And he’s a genius compared to Waj (Kayvan Novak), who can’t tell the difference between a rabbit and a chicken, and Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), who thinks he can cleverly obtain explosives supplies by covering his beard with his hands and pretending to be a woman.
Four Lions thus finds itself in a grand tradition of satirical comedy that helps us deal with the frighteningly incomprehensible by allowing us to laugh at it. As multiple real-life foiled plots over the years have demonstrated, homicidal zealots—like the population at large—are more likely to be inept morons than they are to be criminal masterminds, and that maybe these people need just as much to be made objects of derision as sources of fear and anxiety. Morris and company refuse to find any scenario too bizarre to turn into a punch line, and the results are often gaspingly hilarious
Because it’s a movie built almost entirely around individual gags, Four Lions was bound to have a few misses among its outrageous hits. But when it does hit, Four Lions reminds us that the things we may instinctively respond to with “That’s not funny” could be the things we most need to laugh at.