I watched Four Lions again tonight. It’s the first time I’d seen it in around four years - the film itself dates back to 2010 - and while I still think it’s an excellent film, my relationship to it now feels a little more complex.
Four Lions is a comedy about four Muslim men who plan to blow themselves up during the London marathon while dressed as fun-runners. It was released five years after the 7/7 London Underground bombings. There was some controversy at the time of the film’s release, but it was mostly overshadowed by praise - Four Lions is riotously funny, and carefully toes the line between presenting the protagonists as humans and recognising that most of the men involved are pretty bone-headed.
It doesn’t feel as funny anymore, though, and I think there are a few reasons for that. The first, and most obvious, just comes from the fact that some jokes are best when you hear them for the first time. Four Lions often plays out like a series of sketches, and the sad truth of a lot of sketch comedy is that it loses its colour after you witness it for the first time.
There’s something else, though, and I think it comes from living in the USA for the last six months.
There is an attitude in this country that I’ve found myself slipping into as of late. The best way to describe it is as a violent push back against the sort of views you find in cable news and the people who watch it. While those people are content to slap a reductive, pathologising description on people so they can become objects of curiosity as soon as possible, the opposite view to take is to humanise everything in sight. You find yourself wanting to get in the heads of the worst kinds of people.
It comes from a mistrust of the things you’re told, I think - here, more than anywhere, there are so many people I’ve encountered who keep the proud American tradition of being misinformed alive, but people like that often have the unintended effect of inspiring fellow Americans to do better. In doing so, the people they inspire often gain a better grasp of the world around them, but more often than not it can be at the expense of finding things funny. There’s often no room for nuance. You can understand, but you can’t really examine at arm’s length.
(Yes, that’s a pre-Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch.)
And that’s where the trouble is, I think. You watch a film like Four Lions with this sort of attitude, and it suddenly seems a lot sadder. It’s harder to keep the attitude that makes someone want to martyr themselves at a decent critical distance, for fear that you might dehumanise them. You’re scared that, in your head, they’ll go from being Muslim individuals to “the Muslims”, whatever that means.
There are branches of comedy that rely on this sort of closeness to execute well, but I don’t think Four Lions is really it. It’s the sort of film that needs the right tension between a little dehumanisation and the understanding that the colossally stupid men in the film are just humans, muddling through their own path in life. It walks a tightrope between sympathy and scorn, and as long as you stay on it’s a hell of a ride. Watching this time around, I would fall off from time to time. It’s still a masterful film, and I still laughed, but I came out of it feeling a little hollower.