Watching stupid people is funny. It’s why we laugh at Homer Simpson, the characters on The Office, Dumb and Dumber, etc.
And watching four very stupid would-be suicide bombers is just as funny, even if a part of your brain is wondering, “Should I really be laughing at this?”
I’ve watched Four Lions three times, and it keeps getting funnier. It’s got that awesome British sense of humor that can mix the smartest comedy with the dumbest comedy and then sprinkle in the most superb bad taste. The first time I saw it I thought it was ambitious but flawed. But now it’s gotten completely under my skin. I laugh out loud every time I think the words, “Rubber Dinghy Rapids, bro.” And how Omar uses the story of The Lion King to teach radical ideals to his son is just hilarious.
But Four Lions is not for everyone. I doubt it would be popular with the multiplex-going, sitcom-watching, mainstream comedy fans. But if you’re looking for something “completely different” (in the Monty Python sense), I think you’ll be happily surprised.
As much as I really like this movie, I still recognize that it does have some flaws. Ironically, what I respect most about Four Lions is also what’s ultimately responsible for a tonal shift at the end that doesn’t totally work for me.
If you don’t want to risk spoilers, stop reading now. Otherwise…
What I respect most is that Four Lions commits to its premise. Totally commits.
I can easily imagine what would have happened if Hollywood had produced this script. The suicide bombers would have learned some lesson at the end and resigned their deadly mission, possibly even becoming the heroes and stopping some other terrorist attack.
But that’s false to who these characters are. They’re stupid. That’s what’s funny. That’s also what prevents them from learning any deep lessons and what seals their fate. And it’s also the point of the satire: Lots of our beliefs are stupid, yet we go to such great lengths to rationalize them. Here’s a great example:
Waj is having doubts about their plan to blow themselves up, so Omar tries to convince him it’s okay by telling him to listen to his heart, not his brain.
Omar: So what does your heart say?
Waj: It says, “It’s wrong, Waj, don’t do it.”
Omar (hesitates): And what’s your brain say?
Waj: “We’re here, together, strapped up, and it would be, like, pathetic to cop out now.”
Omar (thinks for a moment): Okay, this is what’s happened. Satan has confused you. He’s swapped around your brain and your heart. Don’t listen to what you think is your heart because that’s actually your brain in disguise as your heart. And what you thought was your brain, that’s your heart.
Even though I love how committed the movie is to it’s premise, I think the filmmakers could have managed the tonal shift better. The problem is that it’s not funny to watch these characters die. Yet, the movie doesn’t completely abandon the comedic tone. I think it wants both, and I don’t think both can coexist. Would it have been better for the movie to have stayed fully in the realm of comedy? No, I think that would have resulted in a watered-down ending that betrays the story’s fundamental premise.
I think the only solution would have been to give up the comedy completely. In this movie—just like in real life—stupidity is only funny to a point. Ultimately stupidity is dangerous and destructive.