Although seemingly controversial, director Chris Morris' Four Lions is a disarming and thoughtful human comedy about misplaced beliefs, the power of persuasion and how even the most extreme groups can still fight over dinner. While it does miss some of the comedy beats, the film actually uncovers humor where most would find none.
For some viewers, Four Lions simply may not be funny enough. In a sequence intended as broad company, we're introduced to our would-be terrorists as Omar (Riz Ahmed) and Waj (Kayvan Novak) are invited to train in Afghanistan while Barry (Nigel Lindsay) reamins with Fessel (Adeel Akhtar) in the United Kingdom to recruit another member into their cell. Here the characters come off more foolish than they should, with Omar and Waj playing more like Gilligan and the Skipper than the popular image of the Islamic terrorist.
But with the film already on shaky ground, it manages a magic trick: Having demolished the perception of suicide bombers, Morris prepares you to accept watching these characters plan a heinous attack over the remaining 80 minutes. In that runtime, Omar and, particularly, Waj become thoughtful and human characters. Novak brings a sweetness to Waj while revealing him as a kind-hearted guy who is only involved because of his friendship with Omar. Although a seemingly throw-away imbecile at the start of the film, he ends up being the most sympathetic character; audiences will want him to fail at his mission and, therefore, live.
The film finds its footing once the five-member team is together in the U.K., and the broad comedy gives way to a drier tone built on wordplay and Barry's opposition to Omar's leadership. As Barry, Lindsay manages to steal almost every scene he's in. The character is unhinged and offers a completely mad, obtuse, and backward target for the group to blow up. The rest of the group, even Waj, shifts between following the orders of the most determined character (Omar) and the craziest (Barry). The material will be familiar and funny to anyone who has ever worked in a small group over a long period.
Morris, a former radio DJ who went on to sketch-comedy shows and The IT Crowd, clearly gets group dynamics. By focusing on that aspect, he makes the mentality of terrorist cells understandable -- even more provocative, he humanizes them. In this way, Morris, along with co-writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, defuses (pardon the pun) the objectionable aspects of the plot. As warped and difficult as their ambitions are, the cell members find companionship in their insane goal. While the film is intended to be funny, Four Lions also offers a familiar reason why people get caught up in group thinking and extreme beliefs: friendship.
Although the film finds its humor-filled center, it is a little too long. At 100 or so minutes, it could be tighter, particularly in its clumsy beginning. As this is Morris' first feature-length film, it is obvious that he is saving his favorite awkward pauses, goofy lines and other darlings. The result is a pace some audiences may find grating. A seasoned director would make more cuts.
Presented as a comedy, Four Lions ends up offering a thoughtful look at one of the more appalling human endeavors. While it still delivers jokes, it also reveals that even in planning a suicide bombing, a terrorist can still a fallible, funny, human being.
Drafthouse Film's Four Lions is in limited theatrical release.