About seven or eight years ago, several of my film critic and journalist buddies (including myself) challenged one another to a pitch contest. The bet involved crafting the very worst pitch for a movie you could imagine that also had enough appeal that someone in Hollywood might be stupid enough to try and make it. There were all sorts of buddy cop comedy pitches and a number of scatological in-jokes. But mine was different. Titled 72 Virgins, the pitch was for an Ashton Kutcher/Seann William Scott teen sex comedy about two high school virgins who learn about Islam and martyrdom in social studies. At first they laugh, but when they discover that jihadists who die killing infidels are rewarded with 72 beautiful virgins in heaven, they set out to convert and lose their virginity killing a few infidels -- whatever those are. Hilarity ensues.
I won unanimously; it was easily the worst pitch of the bunch that some brainiac might try and buy. Jihad is not funny. Whether we're talking about the 3,000 Americans who died on 9/11 or the untold tens of thousands who have died fighting in the Middle East, there are no laughs to find at the expense of global religious extremism. So imagine my surprise when I look in the SXSW guidebook and see a film running along very similar lines to my original premise. While not a teen sex comedy about American dim-wits, Four Lions is no less a dangerous, brutally funny black comedy about five men who desperately want to die as martyrs, but aren't quite smart enough to pull it off.
Focusing on an unconnected rogue band of jihadists, Four Lions is very careful about what it is doing and how it does it. These numbskulls are not only not sanctioned jihadists, they aren't very good Muslims, either. They exhibit the worst of both the Middle Eastern and Western worlds, showing themselves as greedy, spoiled wannabes without a real thought in their heads. These men very much want to be jihadists, but they're not exactly sure what that means; they're angry, but they're not sure why; they're destructive, but they're not smart enough to keep from blowing themselves up in the process. All the while, they manage to cast a satirical light on both the fanaticism of jihad and the West's ignorance of Islam. They poke a lot of sacred cows, but always keep it light and focused upon the objective -- making fun of the antics of idiots and not the beliefs of others.
The first two acts of the film are very much your typical Brit-wit comedy about idiots doing stupid things with even dumber, more confident idiots correcting them and setting them on an even more ignorant path. The jokes are fast and furious, coming at you almost non-stop like some extended Ali G skit goofing on terrorism. But then the third act takes a particularly violent turn as our cell of deviants sets out to bomb a marathon, only to lose member after member to explosive mistake after explosive mistake. That's when the film gets incredibly funny. I almost fell out of my chair I was laughing so hard at this point. It has taken almost a decade for someone to find the funny in such dark material, but here it is, exposed and raw and ready to bring a tear or two to your eye with its endless run of over-the-top moments.
I know. I can't believe what I'm writing, either. This shouldn't be funny. But it is. Very funny. And the best part is that it is also a great recalibration for thinking about terror, religious extremism, and the war in the Middle East. Director Christopher Morris has crafted a smart, over-the-top think-piece free of political judgments or opinions. And I never saw it coming. See this at your earliest opportunity.