Looped: Cynical, verbally profane and very, very funny British satire In the Loop opens Friday at Bay Area theaters.

Whip-smart, Witty 'In the Loop'

Dennis Harvey July 23, 2009

Given the surfeit of good real-world material these last few decades, one might imagine there’s always plenty of sharp political satire around. Yet take away The Colbert Report and suddenly the landscape looks a lot more barren than it ought. The dearth really becomes obvious when something arrives as high contrast: Something like In the Loop, the razor-toothed, no-stranger-than-truth British satire opening in theaters this Friday.

Once again, the Brits prove infuriatingly more adept at incisive, literate, whip-smart wit at the expense of powers-that-be than we former colonists, even when the subject is us. Think back on W., the most recent golden opportunity turned relatively toothless; it seemed too little, too late. Into the Loop, which premiered here at the San Francisco International this past spring, doesn’t even need to stray into the highest corridors of power (Presidential or Prime Ministerial) to wreak its far more corrosive effect on the logic, or lack thereof, that thrust U.S. and U.K. giddily into waging war on Iraq.

Semi-spun off the 2005-2007 BBC series The Thick of It, with director Armando Iannucci, writing team and several cast members reunited, Loop is about how the politics of spin can determine critical decisions on both sides of the Atlantic, impacting the entire world. It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes, with bombs.

A typically fumbling, essentially meaningless comment ("War is unforeseeable") by Minister of International Development Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) is blurted to media at just the moment when any remark by a government official is being furiously analyzed for signs whether Iraq is about to be invaded. Both Downing Street and the White House are denying any such intent, even as both secretly prepare for military action. Simon, a harmless upper-class toff who no doubt fell into a position he’s ill-qualified for as a sort of class birthright, finds himself suddenly regarded as Britain’s bellweather in this pressing concern. He’s delighted at this abrupt if accidental upgrade to the national (even international) stage. Chief among the many appalled at the consequences of his carelessly flapping mouth are the P.M.’s Director of Communications Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), a Scotsman whose own lips can scarcely part without enraged expletives gushing forth like projectile vomit.

Thus the immediate drama concerns opposing efforts to promote and muzzle Simon’s newfound quotability, while on the larger scale a ripple effect begins to influence the mechanizations of real players in the to-invade-or-not-to-invade struggle. All this heightens when Foster briefly, rather haplessly journeys to Washington D.C., where he is pulled at like a wishbone between hawks and doves high on the power scale. They include—in left to far-right order—Assistant Secretary of Diplomacy Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy), the Pentagon’s Gen. Miller (The Soprano’s James Gandolfini), and State Dept. snake Linton Barwick (David Rasche).

Adding their own behind-scenes intrigue are personal-agenda-driven figures like Peter’s communications director (Gina McKee), his new political advisor (Chris Addison), the latter’s Yankee ex-flame (Anna Chlumsky), Karen’s snakelike office rival (Zach Woods), and a crazy constituent (Steve Coogan) who periodically drags Simon back into the boring backyard politics he’s hoping to escape—but which, inconveniently, are the ones he was actually elected to address.

At first glance In the Loop may seem over-indebted to that school of quasi-documentary, hand-held-camera, semi-improv-feeling comedy now very much identified with The Office. (Though in fairness one should recall that the Brits got there first, with the original Office series.) But this hurtling farce of bunglers and schemers scarily involved in significant world affairs soon sucks you into its own vortex. This is that rare sort of comedy that might actually grow funnier with repeat viewings, since the verbal wit and throwaway clever details come so fast and furious you can’t possibly catch them all—or possibly even a majority—the first time around.

Loop is cynical and verbally profane to the max, yet in an entirely different way from, say, Bruno—its satire is that of a thousand precisely aimed darts rather than several clownishly blunt instruments. It’s certainly the smartest big-screen comedy of the year so far, one whose frequent hilarity might actually raise your IQ a few points rather than leaving you with a few more braincells fried.