Tuesday, June 23, 2009

In The Loop (A Review in Six Parts)

1. In The Loop is a sort-of spinoff of the British TV show In The Thick of It, a satire on the inner workings of British government. Both were directed by Armando Iannucci, a BBC veteran familiar to me only as the director of Steve Coogan's Alan Partridge series. The idea Iannucci (a Scot of half-Italian lineage) arrived at to expand his show into a feature is a juicy one: the interactions between mid-level functionaries in the British and American governments during the runup to a war in the Middle East (Iraq is never mentioned, but the parallels are clear), full of leaks and manipulations, and building to a crucial vote at the UN. The characters have power, but it's limited. They are never fully "in the loop", often scrambling for crucial information. The big bosses - President, Prime Minister, Defense Secretary, etc. - are never seen.

2. While having James Gandolfini and Steve Coogan in the same movie is a good start (though they're never in the same scene), In The Loop is full of excellent but lesser known British and American actors. Many, many funny performances. It couldn't have been easy to pull off the feat of making a very dense, wordy comedy script seem to flow naturally and rhythmically, but these actors did it.

3. The movie has lots of fun with the British-American "special relationship". It goes beyond easy, obvious, culture clash jokes to expose the inferiority and co-dependence issues beneath the relationship's surface. The portrayals of both sides are sharp, but the observations and humor seem a little sharper on the British side, probably because the director and the writers (as far as I know) are British. The collision of the two worlds is what really makes up the heart of the movie, though.

4. The portrayal of the inner-workings of government in In The Loop reminds me a little of The Office (particularly the original BBC version). The tone is quite different, but they both manage to feel "true" as to the dynamics and relationships of the worlds they portray while also heightening things for comedy's sake. Pulling this off seems to be require a real understanding of both the specific world being portrayed and of human behavior in general, as well as the comedic sense to know how far you can push a joke or a character without hitting a false note or throwing off the balance. Iannucci isn't quite as expert at this balancing act as Gervais and Merchant, but that's less a knock on In The Loop than an acknowledgment of how high The Office set the bar.

5. As the movie wore on, I started to become aware of the truly epic amount of cursing that was going on. Maybe not Pulp Fiction levels (NSFW!) of cursing, but still an impressively relentless stream of expletives, many of them British-flavored and Scots-accented.

6. For much of the time Anna Chlumsky was on screen, I was trying to figure out what well-known movie or TV show she'd been in as a child actor. Turns out, the movies I couldn't think of were My Girl (with Macaulay Culkin) and My Girl 2 (without Macaulay Culkin). I never saw either of them, but the memory of their existence was somehow lurking deep in my mind, awaiting the IMDB prompt. I also learned this interesting(?) fact from IMDB: L.A. country-rock legend and frequent Eagles collaborator J.D. Souther was also in My Girl 2. Besides co-writing some of the Eagles' biggest hits, he also had a country-folk-rock duo with Glenn Frey called Longbranch Pennywhistle, one of the more whimsically named branches of the Eagles-Poco-Byrds-Buffalo Springfield rock family tree.

Bonus Links

Former British press secretary Alastair Campbell's less than enthusiastic review of In The Loop - he's thought to be the model for one of the characters in the film and TV show, but claims to have been more bored than offended

Longbranch Pennywhistle (including downloadable MP3s) on Glenn Frey's website

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