There's the story about the billionaire American who buys an ancient English castle and has it moved brick by brick to Texas. But the lawn, which has also been cut into pieces and transported, doesn't have its old lustrous green. "How do I make it look beautiful again?" the American asks the British lord, who replies, "Just leave it out in the rain and tend it lovingly for a thousand years."
As with lawns, so with language: the Brits are simply better at caressing and spanking the English language, because they've had so much more practice. The latest proof of their verbal dexterity comes in a crackerjack comedy, In the Loop, which takes the Anglo-American ramp-up to the invasion of Iraq and replays the tragedy as farce. Politics aside, which they never are in this acid, acute talkathon, it's a study of office politics in the middle and upper levels of two large, powerful, troubled corporations: the United Kingdom and the United States of America. No Prime Minister or President is even seen; we're watching the trench fighting of the foot soldiers and noncommissioned officers. Watching and especially listening, in awe of their verbal venom. This is insult comedy of the highest order.
A sort of spin-off of the 2005 BBC political comedy series The Thick of It, the movie is directed by series creator Armando Iannucci and written by Thick veterans Iannucci, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche and Ian Martin. Its central character is a Candidean foreign minister in the British cabinet, Simon Foster (tiny, beset Tom Hollander). A sweet-souled doofus of the second tier, Simon is invited to attend to top-secret conferences, but not to give opinions, only as an extra body "room meat." And he's so fearful of scandal that, if left alone at night in a hotel room on a trip to Washington, he'd be "trying to spank one out over a shark documentary, 'cause I'm scared if I watch a porno it'll end up in the Register of Members, Interests."
The movie, filmed in the fakeumentary style of The Office, sends Simon bumbling through Whitehall, the White House and the United Nations, where he has no more luck than he does in meetings with his constituents, which he compares to "being Simon Cowell, but without the ability to say, "F--- off, you're mental." Led into a radio discussion of a possible war against an unnamed Middle Eastern nation, Simon gauchely says, "Personally, I think that war is unforeseeable." Trying to worm his way out of the gaffe, he burrows in deeper when he tells the press: "To walk the road of peace, sometimes we need to be ready to climb the mountain of conflict." That gets him a scalding scolding from Communications Director Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi). "The mountain of conflict?" he sneers at Simon. "You sound like a f---in, Nazi Julie Andrews."
Malcolm, based on Tony Blair spokesman Alistair Campbell, is a splendidly splenetic creature, with instant obscene jeremiads for anyone who crosses him. When Simon's assistant Judy (Gina McKee) says that certain classified information "falls well within my purview," Malcolm explodes: "Within your purview? Where do you think you are, some f---in, Regency costume drama? This is a government department, not some f---in, Jane f---in, Austen novel!" And the movie is not one of those genial Brit rom-coms like Notting Hill or Four Weddings and a Funeral. It's closer to the high-IQ ranting in plays by John Osborne and TV dramas by Dennis Potter. Put all these witty, rancid voices together and you hear the wail of a depleted nation that has lost nearly every imperial perquisite but the power to call other people idiots, and the skill to carry it off with salacious style.
The main butts of the Brit politicians, scorn are the Americans, whom they hold in contempt curdled with envy, as in: We passed the running-of-the-world baton to these people? Simon's chief aide Judy (Lina Mckee), seeing baby-faced college grads in high positions, notes that "They're all kids in Washington. It's like Bugsy Malone, but with real guns." Malcolm is less subtle. Recalling Britain's vanished might, Malcolm tells one of the American brats, "We burnt this tight-assed city to the ground in 1814, and I'm all for doin' it again."
Truth to tell, the Brits get the best lines, and In the Loop sags when the U.S. government's antiwar faction starts macchiavelling. Iannucci & Co. have much more fun with American hawks like Donald Rumsfeld. The former Defense Secretary hardly needs caricaturing; he was his own David Levine cartoon. So the movie's Lynton Barwick (David Rasche) is just Rumsfeld with a haircut, not a lobotomy. "We don't need any more facts," Lynton proclaims. "In the land of truth, my friend, the man with one fact is the king." And he is in control of what passes for fact. He doctors the minutes of an important meeting, telling an aide, "They should not be a deductive record of what happened to have been said, but it should be more a full record of what was intended to have been said." No wonder one of Lynton's White House antagonists, Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy), says that "Lynton is an absolutely lunatic... Voices in his head are now singing barber-shop together."
To enjoy In the Loop you needn't know which character is supposed to be what government bigwig; just relax and savor the insults. Every person, monument and company gets a derisive nickname. CNN is "the Cartoon News Network." Toby, Simon's curly-haired, cherub-faced aide, is variously addressed as "Fetus Boy," "Love Actually" and "Ron Weasley." (The last is an apt epithet; as the plot will show, Toby is more than a little weasely.) Chad, a tall, thin lad on the American team, is "Young Lankenstein" and "the boy from The Shining." James Gandolfini plays a dovish U.S. General here, not a Mafia don; still, it takes giant golden gonads to have the ex-Tony Soprano called "Shrek" to his face.
If this were a standard-issue parody, the Brit clods and U.S. dolts would by the end blunder their way to an improbable victory. But true satire says that the human condition is weak, venal and vulnerable, and we all deserve to blow. The bang that ended the movies, definitive political satire,Dr. Strangelove, wasn't fireworks but the end of the world. In the Loop sidesteps the happy ending, but sitting through it is a hoot: cruel people making funny cracks about life-and-death issues. You'll feel smarter just getting in synch with its hurtful, healing sense of humor.