Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop uses its very English drabness to launch a stealth attack. It’s pitched as farce, but its silliness carries a sting. Spun off from the Brit TV series The Thick of It, the film follows assorted UK and US politicians, assistants, and handlers in the run-up to a new (unnamed) war in the Middle East. Toby Wright (Chris Addison) is just beginning a junior position with meek, ineffectual staffer Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) when disaster strikes: Foster says in a radio interview that war is “unforeseeable.”
This sends the Prime Minister’s advisor Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) into an apoplectic spin-control fit, during which we learn hilariously little about what the right thing to say would’ve been (“foreseeable” is deemed just as terrible). The action shifts between London and Washington as politicians on both sides of the pond try to situate themselves advantageously, whether opposed to each other or in some sort of tense allegiance, as the mess looms larger.
One problem, among others, is that no one can agree what outcome—war, peace, endorsement, resignation—is messiest. General Miller (James Gandolfini) opposes the war but hesitates to lead the charge against it, while young aide Liza (Anna Chlumsky) has written an anti-war paper, but fears for her career when it starts to circulate. Malcolm stays so on-task with his manipulations of who knows and says what that the consequences seem almost pointless, apart from the issue of whether or not he’s in control.
Iannucci and his co-writers (five are listed) manage to make this wonkiness funny rather than droning. Partly this results from the film’s use of techniques recognizable from Britcoms, like the faux-documentary awkwardness of The Office and Spaced‘s cultural references. The latter turn up as ornamental extensions of the dialogue’s many epithets and insults: The Sound of Music, The Elephant Man, the White Stripes, and (most scathingly) Love Actually, among others, come up as targets of withering derision.
The film’s mélange of allusions, stammers, and parodies sounds like a nearly new language. This is a rare movie where you have to keep up with the dialogue, not just the plot. And the actors take full advantage of the chance to speak full, smart sentences Capaldi plays the furious Scotsman with commendable relish, but the lower-key performances are equally skilled. Chlumsky (remember the My Girls?), is particularly charming, playing a woman aware of but not always confident in her own intelligence.
In the Loop is often very funny—minute for minute, surely one of the funniest movies of the year—but it’s a little exhausting, too. The spin machine never stops rat-a-tatting, the sorta good guys are too incompetent to get ahead, and the movie just runs until it can’t run anymore. This may reflect actual foreign policy-making more than we’d like to believe, the political process reinterpreted as a fast-paced grinding down of the truth. On screen, though, the satire’s relentlessness drains away the movie’s tension; the stakes remain high, but the laughs eventually feel halfhearted. An abrupt ending makes narrative and satirical sense, but leaves several characters in the lurch (Liza and Toby, especially, recede from the picture as it hurtles to its conclusion). Maybe that’s a testament to the movie’s verisimilitude: inevitability is only funny for so long.