Wednesday, September 9, 2009

In The Loop [movie review]

* Limited North American theatrical release in July; DVD release date TBA
Plain and simple, In The Loop is the best comedy I've seen this year. It's another film adapted from a British television show, this time a BBC series called The Thick Of It. Over there, they take first-rate television and turn those shows into quality films (the recent State Of Play), while Hollywood spends millions to bring crap like Charlie's Angels and The Dukes Of Hazzard to the big screen. Sad.
Being politically engaged is not necessary for you to appreciate the brilliance running throughout this satire of British and American politics, both from the actors and the writing. It's one of the blacker comedies I've seen, populated with characters who rip into each other with a vicious zeal and for whom the notion of "hurt feelings" matters little.
The proceedings move quickly as the film boldly challenges the viewer to keep pace with the brisk dialogue and unpredictable direction of the story. In many ways, the rapid-fire delivery style of the lines reminded me of TV's The West Wing. You have a hard time believing that actual people (even highly intelligent people) talk like this, but it sure is entertaining to watch. Here's the plot: during a radio interview, low level British Cabinet minister Simon Foster (played by Tom Hollander) states that a war is "unforeseeable" (exactly where this war will occur is never stated, but a strong inference is that it's in Iraq). His misguided remark sets off a firestorm that extends to the Prime Minister's office and reaches overseas to Washington, D.C., setting in motion a potential march to war. Foster is then dispatched to America to smooth the waters and save the Brits some face with the U.S.
The dynamic of the two countries' relationship provides great comedic fodder, with the British coming off as a weak, annoying younger sibling to the American's older bully of a brother. Speaking of bullies, let's talk about the character of Malcolm Tucker. Played by Peter Capaldi, he is Foster's superior and does not suffer fools gladly...and Foster is most certainly a fool. Tucker slings criticisms and insults with an almost joyful enthusiasm, relishing every hurt look and stunned face that is on the receiving end of his vitriol. Somehow, his strong Scottish brogue makes the putdowns seem even funnier.
Excellent supporting roles come from Chris Addison (as Foster's assistant, Toby), David Rasche as the gung ho U.S. assistant secretary of policy who uses a live grenade as a desk paperweight, Mimi Kennedy as an American diplomat who's so stressed by her job that her gums bleed uncontrollably and Anna Chlumsky as her assistant. Chlumsky is especially good and had me staring at the screen for a significant amount of time trying to remember where the heck I'd seen her face before. It turns out it was the young girl from the movie My Girl (and its sequel), who dropped out of show business several years ago before returning to it recently. Steve Coogan has an amusing role as a disgruntled resident living in Foster's constituency who provides an annoyingly petty distraction amidst the global scale implications that Foster finds himself embroiled in. James Gandolfini, as an American general, struggles somewhat to leave the ghost of Tony Soprano behind. Soprano was such a strongly defined role who incorporated his imposing size as a character trait and it's difficult to shake that role as you watch Gandolfini on screen, even with him done up in a highly decorated military uniform. As you watch his character lose his temper in one scene and threaten to take a crap on the desk of someone he suspects has stood him up for a meeting, it's Tony versus a member of his crew or some other Jersey lowlife all over again. Still, there are worse things one could be reminded of.
Director Armando Iannucci also co-wrote the script, pulling the same double duty he performed for The Thick Of It. Visually, the film owes a debt to the British television version of The Office, shot with a documentary feel via handheld cameras, including Office traits like shooting a scene from across a room into a closed office, but with the dialogue from inside the room clearly heard. The movie is a superb breath of fresh air, succeeding as a hilarious comedy that expects a level of intellectual investment from the viewer, a combination all too rare in films these days.
Rating: 10/10

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