In Praise of Four Lions, ‘the Muslim Blazing Saddles

Four Lions. Photo: Drafthouse Films

Looking for some quality comedy entertainment to check out? Who better to turn to for under-the-radar comedy recommendations than comedians? In our recurring series “Underrated,” we chat with writers and performers from the comedy world about an unsung comedy moment of their choosing that they think deserves more praise.

Writer and stand-up comedian Alex Edelman understands the tension that exists between living in the modern world while trying to adhere to traditional religious beliefs. Edelman was raised Orthodox Jewish, and while he still identifies deeply with the religion, some of the customs he grew up keeping have changed. Edelman’s upbringing is one of the topics he explores in his one-man show Just for Us, which interweaves a story about him attending a 2017 white-nationalist meeting in New York City with anecdotes from his life. The show played a sold-out run at the Cherry Lane Theatre from December through February and is now playing an encore engagement at the SoHo Playhouse through April 23.

Edelman sees the same religion-versus-modernity tension in Four Lions, the 2010 black comedy written by Chris Morris, Sam Bain, and Jesse Armstrong. The film centers on five British Muslims, four of whom are Pakistani and one of whom is a white man who converted to Islam. The five aspiring jihadists aim to carry out a terrorist attack with the use of bombs strapped to their bodies, but instead they bumble their way through their plans. Though it might be difficult to find humor in the premise, Morris, Bain, and Armstrong’s heavily researched film uses slapstick, gallows humor, and an aim at understanding the would-be suicide bombers to mine comedy out of the dark subject matter. Edelman thinks Four Lions has all the ingredients for a great comedy: pathos, jokes, unique characters, and very high stakes. He reveres the film so much that he refers to it as the “Muslim Blazing Saddles.”

What do you like about Four Lions?
It feels like a movie that shouldn’t work, but it does. You just hear the premise: a movie about five Muslim suicide bombers in the U.K. written by three white guys. You’d think it would be offensive, and you’d never believe it’d get made, but the fact that it’s done with so much love and so much pathos, it felt very warm and handmade and loving, and it just seemed like it was a perfect high-risk-maneuver satire. It skewers Islamophobes and extremists and religion and religiousness, and it’s a really fucking funny movie. This was Riz Ahmed before he was a household Star Wars name. He’s fantastic, as is Kayvan Novak and Nigel Lindsay and Benedict Cumberbatch in his tiny role!

When I first saw the movie’s premise, a “jihadi satire,” I thought, How can this be funny? It’s one of those movies that proves anything can be funny; it just depends on the way it’s done. Why do you think it was overlooked?
I don’t know why it’s not regularly mentioned. I don’t know that in America it hit audiences the way it struck a chord with Brits and British Muslims in particular. To me it’s always been considered an underrated favorite. And it was a challenge to get it made, apparently. They crowdfunded part of it; they really scratched it all together. But it’s got this tiny intense fan club of folks.

What comes to mind when you think of the movie now, more than a decade after its release?
The sheer tonnage of set pieces. I can tell you off the top of my head ten scenes from the movie, and they’re all shot through with such heart. There’s a scene where Omar (Ahmed) and Waj (Novak) are about to be brought to this terrorist training camp in Pakistan, and they’re standing in a shop filled with live chickens, and their handler asks them if they’d kill each other if they had to, and they’re sort of telling each other, “I love you. I would kill you,” and describing the graphic ways they’d do it. There’s so much going on in that scene — Omar’s explaining to Waj that life is worthless, that being alive is like waiting in line for an amusement park and that a martyr’s paradise is filled with the rides. And also Waj keeps insisting that the chickens are “fucked-up rabbits.” And Omar says, “They’re chickens. If they’re rabbits, where are their ears?” And Waj responds with, “That’s what I’m saying.” It’s funny and different, and it’s heartbreaking. That scene has so many different kinds of jokes, and there are so many lines that I quote all the time. If my car doesn’t work, I say, “It’s the spark plugs — they’re Jewish.”

That line was one of my favorites from Barry (Lindsay). Omar sees Barry as ridiculous and asks him, “What parts in the car are Jewish?”
The spark plugs! “Jews invented spark plugs to control global traffic.” Every scene with Barry is so pointed because he thinks he’s the only good Muslim and he thinks he’s a genius. He calls himself Azzam Al-Britani. He keeps pitching that they blow up the mosque as a false flag. He’s a truly brilliant character. Morris uses him for a million small jokes. There’s a university debate where he has a little name plate in front of him that says “Islamic State of Tinsley.” He’s converted, he’s a white guy, and he’s the most radical.

When Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) accidentally blows himself up around a herd of sheep, Barry tries to defend the accident by saying Faisal “disrupted the infrastructure by taking out the sheep.”
The movie is a great exercise in storytelling, which is, Can I make you root for these guys to succeed in blowing something up? Can I make you root for these wannabe jihadis, these five stooges? Also they’re very sweet to each other. My favorite character is Waj because he’s the one who feels the closest to what I perceive a jihadi as, which is someone who is purposeless. Toward the end of the film, Waj says, “I don’t know what I want. But I’m here, and I don’t know what to do.” This is someone who is naïve and is being led by somebody that he loves, and the love of his friend is really fighting his nature, which is very kind and warm. Your heart breaks for that character in that moment. And he’s literally got a suicide belt on. All the best comedy movies — like all of Chaplin’s movies — there’s real pathos there. Four Lions is equal parts slapstick and pathos. The two go hand in hand, and sometimes they’re blended so gorgeously.

The moment with Waj that got to me was when, right before the bombing, he tells Omar his heart is telling him what they’re doing is wrong. Omar convinces him his brain and heart are actually swapped, and Waj believes him. The scene is more tragic than funny.
The actual bombing stuff is so gripping, and what I think the movie really does well — without trying to heavy-hand it home — is it doesn’t ignore structural racism. The movie doesn’t ignore the fact that Omar’s totally innocuous brother is who the cops think is the real terrorist. When the cops kill the kebab-shop guy who’s actually Waj’s hostage, they fire a million bullets at him because he looks what they think a terrorist looks like. The idea of “what a terrorist looks like” is very much in the movie, but it’s not what the movie is about. And I love that the film isn’t about Islamophobia but just sort of treats it like a fact of life, which of course it is. Doing that is wonderful and intriguing and raises a lot of really compelling questions.

Did you find yourself relating to anything in the film?
I like that there are bits of the movie about the tension between the traditional and the modern. There’s a scene between Omar and his brother. His brother won’t speak to a woman if they’re alone together. Omar is seemingly more moderate, but he’s the jihadi? It messes with your expectations a little bit. That topic — the tension between the modern world and the religious one — is identifiable to me. My show is about that. My life is very much focused on traditional Judaism in the modern world. I live that tension every day of my life.

You grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family. Did you face struggles of whether you wanted to be Orthodox?
My level of observance has changed over the course of my life. I was more religious and then less religious, and now I’m a little more again. To me, observance and religiousness aren’t the same thing. I have found myself in times when I’ve been less observant but the same amount of religious. I keep a level of kosher, but that has nothing to do with my relationship to religiousness. That’s one of the gifts of Judaism, to me, at least: If you’re Jewish, you’re Jewish. I say in the show, “It’s a mailing list you can never unsubscribe from.” I never questioned whether Judaism was for me, but yes, every single day of my life, I wonder if the life I’m living is Jewish enough — or too Jewish.

I think there’s a lot of conversation in this film about what it means to be a good Muslim, and I relate to that so much. I find myself saying this every day now: “The specific is universal.” When people saw My Big Fat Greek Wedding, everyone looked at that and thought, That’s my family, because the specific family dynamic is so universal. So when I watch Four Lions about what it means to be a good Muslim, I see that same tension in what it means to be a Jew.

In my comedy, I’m very wary of totems. I never talk about things that are traditional totems of Judaism. I love bagels but hate that they’ve come to sort of represent Judaism to people. I wrote this thing called Saturday Night Seder with Benj Pasek and a bunch of other folks during the beginning of the pandemic. We got a bunch of celebrities like Idina Menzel and Josh Groban and Jason Alexander to make a thing where we raised money for the CDC. When we were writing it, I was a real jerk about “No bubbes, no brisket, no bagels. Our thing needs to ring as something that’s not superficial.” And someone wondered if it was too inside for people. I was like, “Fuck it — then it’s too inside for them.”

There was a scene in Four Lions where Omar is arguing with his brother, and he uses a bunch of Arabic words that aren’t translated for the viewer. I don’t know Arabic, but I’ve spoken Hebrew with my family, and sometimes my friends don’t know what we’re saying. I think people treat their audiences sometimes like they’re stupid, so they consciously avoid certain things. I don’t know if Chris Morris and Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong have any sort of Muslim connection or insight, but the fact that every detail in the movie is not immediately accessible to the casual viewer is so much more interesting. If you’re truly making art or comedy that’s representing a group that has their own language and culture, then it shouldn’t be immediately 1,000 percent accessible for the general viewer. I wish more shows and movies asked for that level of engagement from their viewers.

Your show centers around a white-supremacist meeting you attended. Were there similarities between those extremists and the ones you see in the movie?
I think what I do recognize in both groups — in all extremists — is frustration. And my dad likes to quote this Einstein quote that I can’t confirm is from Einstein. It was something about how God created Nazism, intelligence, and integrity, but he didn’t give people the capacity to possess all three qualities. In the movie, it’s about these guys who are all frustrated and sweet, but they’re really purposeless and inept, and it’s why they’re extremists. And in all extremism, I think there’s a ton of ignorance. You can’t be extremely well informed and an extremist and a good person. But I also think that the vast majority of people are ill informed.

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In Praise of Four Lions, ‘the Muslim Blazing Saddles