Thursday, August 6, 2009

The year's best satire keeps us 'In the Loop'

If this year produces a better (or more bitter) satire than In the Loop, I can't wait to see it.

This British import about a pending war in the Middle East proves compelling and funny, mostly because just about everything in it rings true on some level. The government officials that we meet are a venal lot, careerists who spend as much time jockeying with one another as they do advancing the interests of their respective countries.

Director Armando Iannucci draws the U.S. into his loop, showing us a war-hungry State Department official and a general who argues that the U.S. lacks sufficient manpower to fight a war. What war? It doesn't matter. The unseen conflict in the movie easily could be located in Iraq, but Iannucci allows us to fill in the blanks as he barrels through a story that's put across by a terrific group of American and British actors.

The whole business kicks off when a minister in Britain's department of international development makes a remark about war. "War," he says, "is unforeseeable." The fact that this statement doesn't mean much of anything doesn't put a halt to the storm that ensues. Working from a script he co-wrote with Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche, Iannucci navigates his way through series of turbulent trans-Atlantic negotiations, mercilessly skewering just about everyone who walks in front of his camera.

In the Loop has a large cast, so it's impossible to name everyone in it, but highlights definitely are in order. Tom Hollander brilliantly portrays the minister who starts the ball rolling, a man whose major talent seems to involve squirming. Unbridled viciousness is the main talent of Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), a profanity-spewing realist of a PR man and master of insults. Malcolm is one of those guys who go through life with a chip on their shoulders; knock it off at your peril. He also appears to know the "real" story -- I mean the really "real" story -- about anything and everything.

Working with minister Foster are some equally vicious minor characters: Judy (Gina McKee) has a disquieting air of savvy about her; Toby (Chris Addison) is quick to take credit for anything he can. On the American side, we meet Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy), a smart state department official who opposes war. Her boss (David Rasche) is so eager to go to war, he's lost interest in whether the facts actually support such a decision. Anna Chumsky plays Clark's assistant, an up-and-coming state department employee who squares off with another up-and-comer (Zach Woods).

James Gandolfini does some of this best big-screen work yet as a general who opposes war, but who -- like everyone else in the movie -- is a bottom-line careerist. Dry and funny, Gandolfini puts aside all memories of Tony Soprano, mastering the style of insider pragmatism that defines so many of the movie's characters.

Maybe it's the British accents. Maybe it's the intricacies of the plotting. Maybe both. Whatever it is, you may have to work to keep up with the plot. It's worth it. In the Loop is witty and, most important, knowing. I doubt whether anyone this year will make a movie in which humor and satire put such a powerful stranglehold on hypocrisy. Is the movie too cynical? Maybe. But who among us hasn't noticed that purported higher purposes often mingle with base self-aggrandizement?

No comments: