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Rematch for American Independence

MOVIE REVIEW
In the Loop (2009)

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IFC Films

Armando Iannucci is one of the most successful satirists in contemporary British television, a revered writer-director whose influential news spoofs "On the Hour" and "The Day Today" launched the careers of Steve Coogan, Chris Morris and playwright Patrick Marber in the 1990s. Because of Britain’s lamentable record of translating its TV heroes into cinematic damaged-goods, the arrival of "In the Loop" has been greeted with some understandable trepidation in Britain, borne out of the fear that only the curse of the "British comedy film" can bring down a reputation as unblemished as Mr. Iannucci’s.

James Corden and Matthew Horne ("Lesbian Vampire Killers") are the latest casualties of this unfortunate syndrome, and even the talent behind the much-loved "Peep Show" (whose writers also contribute to "In the Loop") came crashing down to earth with "Magicians" in 2007, while Steve Coogan and Ricky Gervais have sensibly bypassed Britain completely on the way to Hollywood. Of the great British TV comedy writers of the last 15 years, only Simon Pegg has managed to resist this adaptive hex. The unspoken assumption that results from the general air of pessimism is that if Mr. Iannucci fails with this film, then everyone else may as well pack up their feature-length scripts and go home.

"In the Loop" is a follow-up of sorts to Mr. Iannucci’s TV series "The Thick of It," a political satire of the Blair era in British politics in which politicians seemingly stoop to any level of absurdity to try and craft a positive spin on the latest PR disaster. In these contortions, they are mercilessly marshaled by Number 10’s Director of Communications Malcolm Tucker, a ferocious government attack-dog more-or-less based on Prime Minister Tony Blair’s notoriously implacable press secretary, Alastair Campbell.

Since the original star of "The Thick of It," Chris Langham, was convicted of possessing indecent images on his home computer in 2007, Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker has risen to become the natural star of the show and in this big-screen version the character again adopts center-stage. American audiences unfamiliar with "The Thick of It" may at this point be imagining a wry political satire full of gloriously inventive repartee in the vein of "The West Wing" (or BBC’s "Yes, Minister"), but in fact most of the wit on display results from the character of Tucker and the inventively profane invective that he heaps upon his staff, the media, enemies and general bypassing victims. These cavalcades of obscenity may seem extreme to some audiences and may, ultimately, inhibit the film’s chances of wider acceptance in America.

Rather than concentrating on the trivialities of domestic politics as per the series, "In the Loop" wisely goes for the bigger picture and re-imagines the most controversial political drama of recent times: the rush for war in Iraq in 2003, here recast as a generic “Middle Eastern conflict.” This tactic also allows Mr. Iannucci to draw in a range of American actors to add to his tried-and-tested body of performers, and also to widen the remit and appeal of the film beyond the insularity of British politics.

Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) is a minister from the Department of International Development who inadvisably remarks on national radio that the proposed war is “unforeseeable,” thus setting in motion the wheels of spinmeisters and opportunists on both sides of the Atlantic as he becomes a political pawn caught between dueling doves and hawks. In Washington, Foster is courted by Assistant Secretary for Diplomacy, Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy), and her ally Gen. Miller (James Gandolfini), who both believe that war is avoidable, but his attempts to backtrack and placate both sides with meaningless soundbites (“climb the mountain of conflict”) simultaneously leads to him being held up by the pro-war side. This crew is led by Linton Barwick (David Rasche), an armchair hawk of the type who uses a live grenade as an office paperweight. The madness culminates in a race against time at U.N. headquarters as both sides attempt to swing events their way, while Foster has to deal with the savagery of Tucker alongside the nagging interruptions of an aggrieved constituent back in lowly Northamptonshire whose garden wall has collapsed.

Mr. Iannucci has openly stated in advance that he tried to make it as uncinematic as possible, because he wanted to keep with the aesthetic of the original show, namely that of the insider’s view of the corridors of power. Therefore, we are handed few establishing shots, no particularly appealing characters, little in the way of back story or narrative architecture and an ending that’s climatic but slightly unsatisfying. Mr. Iannucci has at least toned down the hand-held camerawork of "The Thick of It," an effect that’s been known to cause nausea in the cinema when used in films like "Cloverfield."

Regardless of all this, fans of quality comedy from both sides of the Atlantic will immediately be able to appreciate Mr. Iannucci and co.’s instinct for satire and grasp of the absurdity of modern political communication. Those viewers going in cold can expect something akin to the improvised comedies of the Christopher Guest ensemble.

One question does remain about how the film’s chances, and that’s how will it play in the heyday of the Obama optimism period, having been crafted at the tail end of the more cynical Bush-Blair era? It’s a good point, but hopefully those who could only laugh with defeated resignation during those troubled years may well find the film cathartically humorous.

The Washington cast members perform admirably in conjunction with their Westminster counterparts, who can call on two series’ worth of familiarity with each other, and this kind of material. Mr. Gandolfini, in particular, gets some great lines. And despite the inherent silliness of much of the action, there is a sense of authenticity to proceedings that’s enhanced by the fact that some scenes were, incredibly, apparently filmed in Downing Street.

I think "In the Loop" works as a comedy film, but many won’t because it doesn’t play by all the rules and is a result of Mr. Iannucci’s fiercely uncompromising style. Mr. Iannucci has triumphed and the doubters can rest easy because his reputation remains intact; in fact, his approach might even mark the way forward for the derided British comedy film. We have to stop worrying about how well aspects will play in certain markets and whether cast members will be suitable enough eye-candy for the marketing campaign. We simply have to make sure our films end up being funny and that they play to the strengths we’ve accrued from the successes of our smaller-scale TV and theater culture. That is what Mr. Iannucci has tried to do here, and hopefully it will signal a welcome rebooting for this particular genre.

IN THE LOOP

Opens on July 24 in New York and on April 17 in Britain.

Directed by Armando Iannucci; written by Mr. Iannucci, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche; music by Adam Ilhan; production designer, Christina Casali; produced by Kevin Loader and Adam Tandy; released by IFC Films (United States) and Optimum Releasing (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes. This film is not rated by M.P.A.A. and rated 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Anna Chlumsky (Liza), Chris Addison (Toby), David Rasche (Linton), Gina McKee (Judy), James Gandolfini (General Miller), Mimi Kennedy (Karen), Olivia Poulet (Suzy), Peter Capaldi (Malcolm Tucker), Steve Coogan (Paul Michaelson), Tom Hollander (Simon Foster) and Zach Woods (Chad).

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