In the Loop, which was picked up for U.S. release by IFC at Sundance, seemed tailor-made for easy summations: "It's The Office meets The West Wing," the early-screening set said, along with raving endorsements about how funny In the Loop actually was. And the latter part of that was proven right when I saw In the Loop at Sundance; it's achingly, wrenchingly, dizzyingly funny, with a bleak, bitter sense of humor that makes each laugh feel like the people behind In the Loop are not so much tickling your funny bone as they are going at it with an ice pick.
And yes, In the Loop has the handheld-yet-slightly-too-steady camerawork of The Office, where the comedy of uncomfortable silence builds and builds as the camera lingers and stays on, and it also has the petty rivalries and silly squabbles of The Office; it seems that whether you're selling paper or pushing it, work is work. And In the Loop also has the insider-y, rushed feeling of The West Wing, where many scenes are done as a walk-and-talk and we're reminded that they talk about the corridors of power because that's usually where the deals get cut.
But In the Loop also transcends those easy comparisons, and does so to great effect. The idea that government is as messy and petty and foolish as any other workplace is scary, and funny; the insider's view of politics in it isn't warm walk-and-talk idealism but the ugly, mean pragmatism of the stalk-and-talk, or even the prowl-and-growl. On the surface level, In the Loop is The Office meets The West Wing, sure; what it winds up feeling more like is as if John Cleese and George Orwell wrote Dr. Strangelove for our media-soaked age where wars are conducted in part through press releases and focus groups, or Catch-22 for the 24/7 news era.
During an trivial radio interview, Minister for International Development Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) is asked about the war -- nobody says with who, but it may or may not be coming, and Britain may or may not stand alongside America, and it'll take place in the Middle East. Foster, caught aback, does the worst thing a modern politician can do, and actually says something with a clear meaning, offering that war is "unforeseeable." The clip catches the attention of Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), the Prime Minister's Director of Communications, which Capaldi -- spitting terse profanities and imperatives through sharp teeth -- makes clear is not something you want to do.
Malcolm is furious, but then again, that's like saying the Pacific Ocean is moist; Malcolm exists in a state of perpetual anger, spitting out brief, brutal nickname-insults at those who have wronged him with a gaunt, ghoulish air that suggests he exists on a high-protein, low-carb diet of the corpses of the enemies he has defeated and the underlings who have disappointed. He rages at Simon to try and patch up the gaffe without actually reversing it: "All sorts of things that are likely are also unforeseeable!"
That that line -- delivered with the scorn of an angry god by a highly-placed but unelected political player to a cowering Minister more concerned with his resume and connections than his riding of constituents -- was funny, but it also showed a backbone and brain that made In the Loop one of the highlights of the Sundance Film Festival. "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. ... Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." George Orwell wrote that in 1946, in his under-read and unheeded "Politics and the English Language," and it is very funny -- and very sad, which is why it has to be funny, because then it would be unendurable -- to watch In the Loop and recognize how in a very different world, so little is different. Or, as Malcolm notes later on, "I have spoken to the Prime Minister -- whether it's happened or not is irrelevant." Malcolm, in the famous words of both a Bush administration source and Orwell's Big Brother, creates his own reality; problem is, we have to live in it.
Of course, this may not be the first thing you notice watching In the Loop; the smart stuff is buried under sweary, shouty slapstick and very English aghast embarrassed silences. Malcolm spits out insults as new nicknames when he's angry, which is to say constantly, so that Simon's new fresh-faced advisor Toby (Chris Addison), busy making things worse, is called "Frodo" and "Ron Weasley"; James Gandolfini's American military man trying to stop the war is "General Flintstone"; a not-so-innocent bystander gets "the baby from Eraserhead."
And the screenwriting team -- Iannuci, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche, with "additional dialogue" by Ian Martin, who the press notes name as 'swearing consultant' -- also have a rich, ripe love of language and absurdity. An American analyst (Anna Chlumsky) writes the controversial paper "Post-War Planning: Parameters, Implications and Possibilities" -- which leads to a sputtering salvo of angry officials trying to bury or praise what they call "PWIPPP" in a spray of syllables. When Malcolm orders Simon to recant, he says that it'll be "easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy." Simon is doubtful: "No, it's going to be difficult-difficult-lemon-difficult."
In the Loop has such intricate and layered jokes, such carefully called-back and smartly referenced running gags that they go beyond comedic genius and into sheer dramatic brilliance. It's got the rat-a-tat dialogue of His Girl Friday and the roaring rage of a Mamet play. Yes, In the Loop is beautifully profane, but it's also a great, cruel political comedy that is actually funny and, more surprisingly, actually political. It's been suggested that In the Loop may not play so well in the Obama era, and that people may not care to see a reminder of the now-bygone Bush years. Obama is the new President of the United States, but he isn't some magically empowered figure like Willy Wonka of the Chocolate Factory or Kal-El of Krypton, and we'd be wise to remember that. Even with inaugural fever running through Sundance like Jonas Brothers madness through a gaggle of girls, the inaugural did not immediately bring American troops home, create peace in the world, erase the financial and human cost of the Iraq war and guarantee that our civil servants would be altruistic, selfless secular saints; In the Loop was inspired by the Iraq war, but it'll be just as funny -- which is just as depressing -- viewed in preparation for the next one.
That's because governments are made of people, and we know what people are like, and so does In the Loop. A great sub-plot has Simon, run from pillar to post dealing with the possibility of war and his sudden nomination as head cheerleader for it, being driven mad by a seemingly inconsequential constituent's problem back home. Simon doesn't get it straightened out, because he has bigger fish to fry, but of course he's less concerned with frying fish than he is saving his bacon, and everything goes wrong, wrong, wrong. The American version of In the Loop would undoubtedly, assuredly include at least one character trying to do the right thing for the right reason and good would win out in time for the happy end; what makes In the Loop so painfully funny is that there's no right thing, and no right reason, and the bad sleep well with no end in sight.