For weeks now, I’ve heard fellow critics recommending Armando Iannucci’s “In the Loop,” a film about a verbal blunder that leads to an international crisis, as a pinnacle of screwball satire, a treasure trove of absurd situations and quotable lines, a “Dr. Strangelove” for the new millennium. I understand the fuss: the state of movie comedy is so generally dismal that when one demonstrates any wit at all, we tend to react like desert travelers who’ve stumbled upon an oasis. But while I agree that “In the Loop” is a breezy, amusing, committed movie — writer-director Iannucci was responsible for the BBC’s “This is Alan Partridge,” the brilliant Steve Coogan vehicle that takes the early Albert Brooks school of miserable jerk comedy as far as it can go — I wasn’t bowled over. It’s good, very good, but visually and rhythmically unremarkable and ultimately pretty thin. And there’s a disconnect between the film’s style and tone (laid-back to the point of triviality) and its subject matter (a series of gaffes and opportunistic schemes that turns the possibility of war into probability) that condemns it to be diverting instead of revelatory.
Like a less dire cousin of “Strangelove,” which showed how aggressive words and mindless posturing could spiral into genocidal brinksmanship, “In the Loop” finds humor in the sight of smart people putting ego and appetite ahead of common sense. During a radio interview, a British government minister named Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) bumblingly describes the possibility of war in the Middle East as “unforeseeable,” a word that his colleagues, the press and the public micro-analyze in much the same way that people used to pore over former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s adjectives, adverbs and body language, hoping to discern what he was really getting at. The central joke — and it’s a good one — is that the word “unforeseeable” was just a placeholder, something to say in lieu of actually saying something. But in such an anxious environment, people want to be reassured that war is either (a) not inevitable, or (b) probable, thanks to Factors A, B and C, all of which the government is doing its best to address. The world needs its politicians to be vague at the same time that it despises their vagueness; public servants are under continual pressure to stand for something in particular and to be all things to all people. So far, so good.
But the film shoots itself in the foot early by adopting a faux-verite style that seems more a go-to filmmaking cliché (via Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries and both versions of “The Office”) than an organic expression of the story and themes. (It’s like how every freaking animated feature released these days has to be three-dimensional CG, in Pixar style.) And although Iannucci’s screenplay tries to highlight the characters’ self-involved twittishness (alternating political encounters with potentially grave implications and silly private dramas, such as one-night stands between junior staffers and huffy disputes between functionaries), the end result feels somehow off, not to mention weirdly retro — a relic of the “Nothing really matters, politics-is-all-image” school of comedy that reached its zenith in 1997’s ‘Wag the Dog.”
I realize that, strictly speaking, realism isn’t the first thing one should look for in a satire, but there is such a thing as internal logic, and “In the Loop” could use more of it. I’m willing to buy that Simon would make an innocent gaffe, dig deeper into his verbal hole, then drag his baggage to Washington, where his department is taking part in a “War Council” (which insists on being called “The Committee for Future Planning”). “I’m standing my ground on the verge,” Simon says at one point, the film’s most devastating, mealy mouthed equivocation.
The most incisive subplot concerns a paper written by Liza Weld (Anna Chlumsky), the talented young assistant to the US Assistant Secretary for Diplomacy, Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy). The paper’s title is “Post War Planning: Parameters, Implications and Possibilities,” and its existence unfortunately seems to confirm some people’s suspicion that Simon’s “unforeseeable” means “inevitable.” When Clarke, speaking at a government meeting, spinelessly IDs her aide as the person who wrote the paper that she commissioned — a paper that’s already being referred to in political circles by the acronym “PWPPIP” — it’s the film’s most casual and stinging example of bureaucratic ass-covering, of a boss cravenly sloughing responsibility onto an underling.
If only the rest of “In the Loop” were so subtle. It too often relies on sitcom-style misunderstandings and awkward silences that are nicely timed but not special. And it’s too enamored with its “star” character, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), the Prime Minster’s Director of Communications, a Mamet-style bull-in-a-china-shop who seems meant as a hardened professional with an impeccable bullshit detector, but who struck me as a blustering phony — a man who has styled himself as a harsh truth-teller so that he can be an asshole 24/7. (Everybody knows at least one person like this: a sociopathic narcissist who describes him- or herself as someone who “just tells it like it is.” Divest yourselves of these people immediately.) Malcolm’s screeds are destined to be the film’s most-quoted lines of dialogue — viewers tend to power trip on their hatefulness — but Capaldi’s performance, while frequently hilarious, has no depth. Hearing him fume and curse, I kept thinking how much more complex and striking Richard E. Grant would have been in the role, thanks to Grant’s knack for letting you see the self-loathing beneath the hostility.
And I don’t believe that the junior-grade staff members, all of whom presumably dreamed of one day working to avert an international crisis (even one they helped create), would spend their time in D.C. grousing that there’s nothing to do, and debating whether to stay in their hotel rooms or go out on the town. We’re not talking about Dunder Mifflin employees on holiday here. The characters in “Strangelove” and “Network” and “Black Adder” and other dark-hearted satires — and the “Partridge” characters, for that matter — were troublemaking navel-gazers, too. But their decisions, no matter how seemingly minor, had serious personal and professional implications, and they knew it — and they were so wound up by this knowledge that they walked around with their veins bulging, sweating and babbling and losing sleep. Funny as “In the Loop” is, it would be sharper if its characters took their circumstances more seriously. If you were in their situation, that’s what you’d do.