Monday, July 20, 2009

IN THE LOOP: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Peter Capaldi, Tom Hollander, James Gandolfini, Chris Addison, Gina McKee, Anna Chlumsky, Mimi Kennedy
Director: Armando Iannucci
Runtime: 106 min.
Country: United Kingdom
Rating: *****
Genre: Comedy

        As they say, history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. In the Loop seeks inspiration from that second part. Both as a piece of filmmaking, and as a piece of political commentary. History has always been about farce. Often, our over-enthusiasm and misguided cynicism leads us to concoct wild conspiracies, but a little bit of observations and cracks begin to emerge. Mediocrity has always been the norm, whether the ruler or the ruled.
        In the Loop very much realizes that, the utter lunacy of it all, and to drive home that very point it uses that other lesson history has taught us. The history of cinema I mean. That is the longevity of the smart intelligent filmmaking over the ramble of plain emotional/serious melodrama. Nobody remembers Mr. Lumet’s Fail-Safe, but even young cinema-goers appreciate Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, and view it with much fondness. By not going all ballistic and resorting to the clich├ęd whining liberal Hollywood anti-war stance, and instead choosing to make a wise and funny satire on the whole deal. In the Loop is the first great movie to emerge out of 9/11, Iraq and the whole war against terrorism. I really want to stress “great”. Not merely as an opinion of mine, but as a statement. I claim thus because I believe fifty years from now, when this decade and its tumultuous events exist only on the pages of history books, and time is ripe for another farce, this might be the only film that audiences would view fondly, and laugh at the utter mockery that it so smartly and convincingly captures. It is an added piece of wisdom that the film never alludes to any particular region of the world, or any particular war, and thus in a way rings timeless.
        Here’s the plot, and bear with me for I shall only deal in broad strokes. The joy of the film isn’t in what happens at the end. We all know that the farce is inevitable. What keeps us hooked is the way it realizes that farce, with ministers and senators across the Atlantic digging a mess for themselves, and sinking deeper and deeper into it. They dig with great confidence though, and that is one of the oldest tenets of comedy – it is always funny when an idiot, preferably smug, is busy making a complete arse of himself. Here, there’s a whole fleet of such idiots. One of them is Simon Foster (Mr. Hollander), the British Minister for International Development, and in one of those moments before the media where politicians are caught between a rock and a hard place without even being aware of it, he opines on a BBC radio interview that the threat of war is unforeseeable. Simon has an uncanny ability to walk right into such situations. The Prime Minister and the President are bent towards a war, and there’re pockets on both sides that are against it. One of those pockets is U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Karen Clarke (Ms. Kennedy), and her beau from long back, General George Miller (Mr. Gandolfini), senior military assistant to The Pentagon. In such a climate the confused Simon, who is against the war per se but has little idea how to tightrope between his political career and that of his ideology, becomes somewhat of a key player.
        Enter Malcolm Tucker (Mr. Capaldi), the Prime Minister’s Director of Communications, and more importantly the guy who is in-charge of getting the job done. In any which way. His very job depends upon the way he influences what happens in a room, be it within the confines of a minister’s office or a meeting hall at the UN. He is aggressive and he might very well be the foulest-mouthed bugger at the movies in quite a while. More so than Tom Cruise’s Les Grossman. You should imagine them in a fight. Tucker would be all over him. The writing is brilliant here, and especially in the manner in which expletives are used for maximum effect. They aren’t randomly inserted to merely sound funny; they’re the very weapons of these alpha-males who have the job of influencing minds and decisions, and shaping the world. Ah yes of course, they’re wickedly imaginative and funny too. You should see how Malcolm uses them, unleashes upon unsuspecting folks, and you might wonder if there’re schools that offer courses to achieve excellence in expletive-spray. You should see the imagination with which he greets Toby (Mr. Addison), the new aide to Simon.
        Speaking of aides, the one to Karen Clarke, Liza Weld (Ms. Chlumsky), has come up with a report that is more anti-war. It is called Post War Planning: Parameters, Implications and Possibilities, or PWIP PIP. The film is so smart it milks that acronym for two serious bursts of laughter – one for the way it sounds and two for what it is, i.e. an acronym. Both seriously observant. In the Loop is a seriously intelligent piece of witty writing the likes of which we only occasionally come across. We all refer to the famed British wit. This is a worthy example of it. This is the kind of writing the Coen Brothers have always aspired to achieve, but fail miserably at, and instead resort to easy gimmickry of the stereotype-driven screwball.
        How funny is it all? It is so funny it is almost unfair. You’re busy laughing at a one-liner and you miss an even funnier reaction. The true richness of a comedy or a witty film isn’t the one-liners coming thick and fast, but how the film reacts to them. By itself, and through its characters. This is what we, as audience, notice on repeated viewings, and this is what rubs onto us. It makes a witty film that much more believable and that is what I believe makes a film truly funny. In the Loop has some terrific moments, and what enhances them are the reactions that follow them. Attribute that to the smart writing and delicious wordplay. For instance meet. And meat. Standing your ground. Or standing on the verge of your ground. I wouldn’t want to divulge anymore. This script is a goldmine folks, and one of the secrets to its infinite wit is the manner in which it uses pragmatism and superimposes it upon diplomacy. Somewhere in there, in the fight to gain control over world events, is a classic tussle between the diplomat, who is always busy choosing the appropriate tone and words, and the absolute in-your-face authoritarian, who only knows how to wrestle the moment, stamp his authority and get the decision in. There’s Simon and his aide Toby, whose attempts at political correctness lands them in one of those unenviable situations. These guys never manage to be what they are. Even while refusing the offer for hookers, Simon seems to be so caught up within his own diplomacy that he is unable to say a plain no. In a moment you realize what a mess the man is in, he replies – I hate hookers. Not even a second passes by and he realizes the possible implications, and he adds – Not in an aggressive way. He is so caught up he is even wary of stuff he wants to be watching on the hotel television on his trip down to D.C.
        And you could attribute it to the terrific acting too, because In the Loop scores heavily on that front. Mr. Capaldi is terrific and for all the right reasons. You should expect to hear a lot more about him during the awards season, and I hope he is remembered. He has the meaty part, and by meat I mean the exact opposite of what the film refers by it. He reprises his character from The Thick of It, that British comedy television series which I hope to catch soon. This is not merely an attention-grabbing performance. Watch closer and you realize how carefully nuanced it all is. You should see how his Malcolm uses the room, and conducts himself. He might seem like a wiry figure, but within the four walls he seems to tower over most. And when he doesn’t, like in the fantastic moment between him and General Miller, you should see how he wrests the initiative. This is very much a diplomat folks, and that diplomat who gets the job done. By hook or by crook.
        The greatest joy though comes from Mr. Hollander (Pride and Prejudice, At World’s End, Valkyrie), whose performance might very well be the richest and the most priceless of the lot, for it only enhances on repeated viewings, and grows funnier each time. With him, it isn’t the lines that are funny; it is him that is being funny. This performance is growing on me everytime. I am beginning to love it more and more. I am laughing more and more. It seems to have some kind of genius within it. His little open stance, so subtly invoking the loony nature of the affable loser living within Chaplin’s tramp and Keaton’s little man, his drooped shoulders, his generally hesitant demeanor and his constant endeavor to reach places far beyond his height, both figuratively and literally, is that third layer of the funny-cake. In a fantastic sequence where he is hounded by the press, pay attention the way he delivers his lines. And how he conducts his body, and his reactions. He knows it is going bad and he looks around for help. From somebody to bail him out. He can neither believe nor stop the words coming out of his mouth. It is a classic moment of the really smart kind of funny. Not merely reliant on funny lines, but simple observant lines building upon the situations preceding them and metamorphosing into something hilarious because of the superlative acting at hand. Mind you, it all isn’t pronounced as it was in Dr. Strangelove, which was entirely based upon the screwball, with deliberate caricatures and stereotypes pretending to be characters. Here it is subtle, and not for one moment does it feel anything but real. These are real people trying to channel out a caricature. And if I do not mention the excellence of the other performances, of Ms. McKee, of Mr. David Rasche, of Ms. Chlumsky and all the others, I realize I’m being unfair, for this is a superb bit of ensemble performance.
        In the Loop builds its satire entirely upon characters, and from that perspective it is a superior send-up than the Kubrick masterpiece. In a way it is more like the offspring that was borne when Strangelove did Network. One should attribute it to the incisive visual style of the movie too, and in no small measure. For the first time I see a film that actually uses the aesthetics of television to drive home its point, and gain from it. The film is more effective this way, maybe more than Dr. Strangelove. It uses the closed cramped spacing of television, and that actually makes these characters instantly familiar. When we see the offices, of the ministers, of the senators, we aren’t looking at the news-broadcasted images, but something that have been spatially so drained out, frame-to-frame, that we feel a part of them. This isn’t fly-on-the-wall folks, this is smack bang in the center of the room. Right inside the loop. There isn’t any background score but only the sounds coming off the location. The palette is drained out. Maybe drained out is not the correct way to put it for its color scheme is what we come across everyday. Never has the United Nations been a place so accessible a place as it feels here.
        In the Loop is one of the smoothest satires I’ve ever come across. In a time when a good smart comedy is rare, this one is a bit of a blessing. This is the kind of film where you actually laugh, and just keep laughing, and you’re so happy you want to text every person you know to see this film so that you can share the jokes and laugh at it all again. In what feels like another lean year at the movies, this one’s the best of the year hands down, and I would be really amazed if there come films that could actually top this one in smartness and fun and entertainment and filmmaking. I don’t know if they get much better than this, but I know a film is real brilliant when it makes me want to watch a television series. And yes, I shall get on with The Thick of It as soon as I can.

1 comment:

Making a stance said...

I really enjoyed your review and your insights. It brought the film back to me and made me laugh out loud. Where's that DVD...