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Culture Warrior: ‘Four Lions’ and the Serious Business of Comedy

By  · Published on December 14th, 2010

Warning: This article contains spoilers regarding the ending of Four Lions. You have been warned (hence, y’know, the whole “Warning” thing).

Almost exactly one year ago, on December 25, 2009, 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate plastic explosives hidden in his underwear on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 headed from Amsterdam to Detroit. The mission, as we all know, failed. The incident regarding the man who became known as the “underwear bomber” is one that has understandably been met with fascination in the media.

The incident proved fodder material in discourse amongst comedians who mutually expressed an inability to understand why al-Qaeda would even take credit for such an embarrassing and silly failure. A mental image perpetuated across culture of a young Muslim fanatic attempting to light his underwear on fire as a show of religious devotion. The actual details of the incident are in fact far funnier. Passengers and flight attendants saw that Abdulmutallab’s leg had caught flame during flight, and used blankets and a fire extinguisher to put it out. His pants were gone, he had burns on his leg, and when he was finally asked by a flight attendant what it was he had in his pocket that caught fire, he simply stated, “an explosive device” as dryly as one would say “chapstick.” As an act intended to induce terror, Abdulmutallab’s attempted underwear bombing is as great an embarrassing failure for his associated enterprise as one could imagine.

It only seems natural then that less than one year later a film emerges whose modus operandi is to show the stupidity of terrorism. Chris Morris’s Four Lions is (in case you haven’t seen it yet, which if that’s the case you should stop reading this and go see it) as funny and as bitingly entertaining as everyone says it is. I’m not here for another (late) good review to add to the film’s (well-deserved) mountains of praise. This much has been established. What I’m here to talk about the film’s function as a work of comedy, as a work of entertainment, and its corresponding meaning.

Great satire is, of course, often not satire at all. The comparison critics have most often been drawing with Four Lions is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964). The comparison is fitting, as both films take a very funny spin on a very serious subject that had America in a frightened, paranoid frenzy during the time of its release. Dr. Strangelove paints the Cold War as absurd, which is something that the Cold War, and the culture surrounding it, in fact was. The real-life “Duck and Cover” instructional videos, for example, are completely tonally consistent with Strangelove. However, this ability to laugh at the Cold War during the Cold War didn’t make the reality of what was involved any less threatening or any less real. But Dr. Strangelove was a rather exceptional film that served a dual function in regards to its content and the socio-historical context of its release: it was 1) cathartic and 2) reflective.

Tough times are fraught with tension, and laughter provides alleviation from that tension. This conventional wisdom implies that, for laughter to take this function, it must be escapist. Such is not always the case, as laughing at the object of fear or at the source of that tension can provide similar alleviation and even lessen the threat, or at least change how the threat is perceived (it is in this case that, while the laughter isn’t in reaction to an escapist distraction, does itself embody a form of escapism). This is linked to the reflexivity component, as the act of laughing at the source of tension and fear creates a new frame with which to perceive it, and through this new lens provides new, potentially insightful and deconstructive meaning to that original source.

The apocalyptic ending of Dr. Strangelove, mushroom clouds accompanied by Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again,” made its paranoid mid-60s audience look at these images which had proliferated throughout their culture (like in LBJ’s infamous “Daisy” ad from the same year) in a subversive, comical light.

Dr. Strangelove’s mode of operation is absurdity, finding comedy through the insanity of apocalyptic discourse. Four Lions, however, manifests its humor through acts of idiocy. The five bumbling protagonists of the film interact as if they were the Three Stooges of the Muslim world, and their comedy is physical. Here Four Lions attests that farce and satire are not mutually exclusive comedy forms, and that one can inform and express the other.

The humor component of Four Lions acts as a catharsis, for it takes a topic that is fraught with tension in our current political discourse and creates a frame through which we are permitted to laugh at what we continue to fear. The resulting sensation can feel empowering, and indeed comedy is a potent way that we continue to create new framesthrough which to consume otherwise serious and potentially devastating information about reality (The Daily Show thrives according to this very notion). Comedy provides a way for us to control the discourse surrounding larger determining circumstances of lived reality that we otherwise see as controlling us. And it is here that Four Lions’ satire operates reflexively, framing a new way through which we examine and interpret real acts of terrorism and making certain specific incidents uncanny in their resemblance to its fictional narrative (e.g., the underwear bomber).

Much of the conversation surrounding critical reviews and advertising of Four Lions pertains the controversy of its premise: that something so serious and pertinent would be treated as a comedy, a genre wrongfully thought of in the popular imagination as antithetical to “serious” filmmaking. Four Lions, while very funny, is serious filmmaking. The film is enjoyable enough based in this premise alone, but its real boldness and audacity lies is in its ending. While we as audiences need the catharsis of Four Lions’ brand of satire, in some respects this catharsis can be a little too comforting. Laughing at terrorists may assuage certain cultural tensions, but with this deliberate reframing of the discourse concerning these attempted acts of violence comes a responsibility on behalf of the creators to actually do something innovative and insightful with it.

Four Lions’ tonal shift is well earned. Its display of the real violence that arises from this stupidity isn’t a cheap reversal stating, “See? Terrorists really are bad!” Instead, the ending uses its new frame to evidence the shared idiocy and victimhood surrounding the reality of reality of terrorism without pulling a single punch.

There are no easily identifiable “good guys” in this equation, only mutual victims, and this 21st-century warfare hardly fits into any historical “good/bad” paradigm. While seeing themselves as martyrs, the protagonists of Four Lions also act as victims of a shortsighted ideology that consumes Western culture and uses the guilt associated with that consumption to enact self-destructive (both literally and culturally) aggressive demonstrations of the masculine id run amok. Yet at the same time, the preventative forces are just as moronic in their futility. Law enforcement here manifest unwarranted violence on innocents through profiling and are by and large incapable of assessing the situation in any productive form. The ending of Four Lions is the only responsible direction the film could have gone, and the mutual idiocy depicted between terrorists and law enforcement is where the film becomes even more reflexive of the subject it satirizes, commenting on a culture that has both underwear bombers and gropey security pat-downs. Four Lions becomes great satire when it doesn’t seem like satire at all. For it to have done otherwise would simply be absurd.

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