Arsenic and Old Lace (44, B-) – Originally completed 7/27/17

One of the most interesting things about existing in this hellish landscape of American politics (I’m going to use the term interesting in a loose way, since the most interesting things are also the most terrifying) is the way that almost all cinematic experiences with Things To Say are refracted through the ghoulish, orange, ballsack-like texture of our current President. Beatriz at Dinner and Get Outhave particularly earned notice for the way their films interact with our current political climate, to say nothing of looking back at older films and Realizing Things about them. In that context, it’s amazing that In the Loop still feels as hilarious as it does, even as the idea of fucking ourselves into a war through a combination of bureaucratic fuck-ups, bureaucratic fuckery, sheer ineptitude, lies, and genuine fake news feels like it could happen at any moment these days. Allegiances shift by the minute between the pro- and anti-war factions of the U.S. and U.K. governments, partially because some are forcibly dragged or accidentally duped across these lines (political parties are not specified or mentioned for any government officials), partially because we learn where loyalties actually lie, partially because some are trying to keep their careers alive at any possible cost. No one emerges from In The Loop’s maze of political backstabbing and vulgar insults heaved like so many bricks, but the landscape it creates in doing so is one of more interesting depictions of this kind of political background than the power-hungry monstrosities of House of Cards, or the kinds of straightforward depictions that political dramas present us.

The fact that it’s so merrily vulgar and nasty to all of its characters, giving everyone so much comedic material to dish and to take, is surely the recipe to its success, perhaps even more than how wonderfully it’s structured. Half of the encounters in the film feel like they’re simply humiliating dressing-downs of one person or another, very often perpetrated (and occasionally received) by Peter Capaldi’s vicious, pragmatic reprisal of Director of Communication Malcolm Tucker. In the Loop opens with one such event, as Tucker berates International Development Minister Simon Foster for flubbing during a radio interview, calling war “unforeseeable”. Still, this is enough to get him into a meeting with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomacy Karen Clark, albeit as a piece of meat. Yet the fact that he us unaware of his status as “tit meat” (as he calls it) leads him to nervously sputter gibberish when Clark acknowledges his presence in the room, and leaves no excuse for the absolute gobbledygook he bumbles at a gaggle of reporters, digging himself further and further into the shit pit. “Climb the mountain of conflict!” is appropriated as the slogan of the pro-war people, especially by U.S. Assistant Secretary of Space for Policy Linton Barwick, whose psychotic rewriting of facts for his own aims and eagerness to go to war is dulled by his own, astounding dullness. Presidents and Prime Ministers are invoked but not seen, and the fate of the world is decided by assistant department administrators and their underlings. The most significant document in the whole film, “Post-War Planning, Parameters, Implications, and Possibilities”, called PWPPIP, is written by a woman named Liza Weld, Karen’s assistant, who is completely mortified that her mostly anti-war paper may be tanking her future in Washington, even as she assists Karen in trying to discover Barwick’s secret anti-war committee. You know, the secret war committee his own aide alluded to in a public meeting. That one.

Yes, okay, so my description of the film’s characters and set-up is similarly tinged with In the Loop’s own colorful language, but can you blame me? How can anyone hear Peter Capaldi’s Scottish brogue complaining that he tripped on a baby-faced assistant’s umbilical cord and not feel similarly inspired in how you process information? It’s amazing to watch the creativity in how these people attack each other, even the ones who are ostensibly allies. Delicious lines, perfectly read, with each actor wearing a winning face to match their insane dialogue. Malcolm Tucker wouldn’t be so intimidating if we couldn’t the fire in his eyes or the vein’s threatening to pop out of his head, nor would Linton’s nastiness be so irritating if he also wasn’t so palpably smug about it.

What’s equally interesting as everything that’s said (though maybe not how they say it) is all the information that’s left pretty vague. The blatantness with which In the Loop is a satire of the invasion of Iraq doesn’t contradict the fact that we never even hear the name of the country everyone wants to invade. The degree to which every single character recognizes the validity of PWPPIP, whether they support the war or not, doesn’t change that we’re left to guess why any one character backs the side that they do – though we are seemingly told that wanting war is definitely going with public opinion. Weld’s anxiety is precisely rooted in that assumption, and is constantly hummed into her ear by a U.S. State Department junior staffer named Chad. Still, we’re left to look at these characters and wonder what each one of them sees if war is declared, or what they’ll do if it isn’t. We’re simply shown who thinks it is and isn’t right. In the Loopperpetrates the smartest case of leaving certain details off the screen, of letting the audience fill in the blanks about political agendas and alliences and parties that I’ve seen from an Anglo-American film, particularly one involving American politics. Perhaps this is simply me noticing something that’s existed in plenty of films I’ve already seen, but this feels like a smarter case of political vaguarity than, say, The Iron Lady’s handling of Margaret Thatcher’s politics. Even a film as glorious as Selma still has to have two characters give us a brief summary of the SNAP organization at the height of its clout. Yet, In the Loop is able to get away with not naming a single political party or any motivation to start a war by portraying the determination of its characters to pass their agenda. The moral compasses of Karen Clark, Simon Foster, Linton Barwick, and Malcolm Tucker become the subjects of the film, nevermind that multiple characters (to include the ones I’ve mentioned) are primarily concerned with staying afloat.

It helps a bunch that each character is so cleverly and clearly realized on the page and by their interpreters. Colorful language makes the whole thing more palatable, for sure, but image how easy it could be to turn any of these characters into cursing, screeching, self-absorbed loons. Everyone wears their characters like second skins, finding the right modulations and line readings to live up to the comic and political potential of the script. It’s one thing hand lines as delicious as “Difficult difficult lemon difficult”, a long monologue about not pissing yourself during a meeting, dismissing a former ally and a creepy subordinate as “General Shrek and his magical talking donkey”, undermining an accusation with “unofficially, this is a shoe”, but another entirely to find a whole cast of performers that can give every single line the punch it requires. All the plaudits to casting directors Sarah Crowe and Meredith Tucker for bringing such a perfect combination of British and American actors together, even with the caveat of bringing Capaldi and a handful of actors over from an existing property (as if that’s a recipe for guaranteed success). The casting of such a talented ensemble is a gorgeous achievement unto itself, and it’s instances like these that makes the casting directors having their own branch at the Academy Awards feel richly deserved, and their lack of Academy Award category feel noticeably empty.

And what a cast! In the Loop possesses a frankly majestic ensemble, with rich energy and endless potential for humor between any two characters. Reading through the massive ensemble listings brings back a flood of fantastic moments. Picking any one actor to even start with for doling out praise feels difficult, so let’s just begin with my favorite favorites and work my way through the rest of this inimitable cast. Peter Capaldi sharpens each line reading for maximum effect, letting each vein practically pop out of his skull as he attacks his subordinates, allies, and enemies with frank modulation while still knocking everyone down a peg. As Karen Clark, Mimi Kennedy furnishes a low-simmering but palpable anger at the ever-growing potential of war, dodging the very real potential for bitchy caricaturing baked into the role, and striking as many comedic notes as anyone else while keeping a fairly lowkey approach next to her colleagues and castmates. David Rasche’s blowhard take on Linton Barwick is as affecting and hilarious as Tom Hollander’s earnest but congenitally inarticulate performance of Simon Foster. James Gandolfini’s general and Gina McKee’s advisor may very well walk away with the best reaction shots of the whole film, with his befuddled or angry face-pulling and her absolute delight in seeing her superiors flail without her. Chris Addison’s newby, Anna Chlumsky and Zach Woods’ mutually antagonistic and differently desperate ladder climbers, and even smaller performances from Paul Haggis, Steve Coogan, Olivia Poulet, Enzo Cilenti, James Smith, and Alex MacQueen do their bit to make every second of the film an absolute delight. (Yes, I basically rounded out the film’s whole Wikipedia page, but since I remembered who each of these people were, and the bits of theirs I loved, I think it’s acceptable).

Yet, as much as everyone makes In the Loop funny, most especially Armando Iannucci, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, and Tony Roche, but never is it funny without a clear recognition of the stakes at hand. This is about war, goddammit, and everyone knows it. Part of what’s so evocative in Mimi Kennedy’s performance is the selfless anger she produces at Barwick’s scuzzy tactics to push for war, her great sense of how goddamn wrong this all is, and that she is virtually the only character to hold these feelings with such passion. The script and Iannucci’s direction are attuned to everything upsetting and disappointing about the film’s trajectory while nonetheless enjoying how its characters poor and scheming decisions drive the story. We are given the room to laugh at the absurdity of Barwick while registering how threatening he is; to see the value in someone shutting down a panicked question of bravery in the face of political crisis with the answer they need to hear, and know the answer is the same when two sturdier character elects to take different paths on protest resignations. Everyone is an operator, no matter how good or bad they are at it, and every single one of their decisions have real impact on an ever-winding narrative. For a film all about communication and information, the way a scenario can change on a dime based on the revealing and expulsion of information and political statements, In the Loop emerges as one of the best titled films of 2009. The fallout of the film’s climax, as the U.N. decides whether or not, leaves plenty of heads spinning, and dominates the mood of the film’s remaining runtime as decisions are made. Then again, the fact that many paths are also thwarted and snatched away from certain characters only highlights the value of the ability to even make a decision on one’s own behalf.

As hilarious as In the Loop is to experience, there’s no way not to take it as a pretty forlorn manifesto about the status of Western politics, and the ways people can affect the future with the best, the worst, and completely unrelated or bumblingly misguided intentions. Pawns sometimes have more power than the people manipulating them, on both sides of the aisle, and no one is immune to the jarring shove of an unforeseen fuck-up. Laugh and be wary. That’s for sure the place I was in once the credits starting rolling, watching everyone reorganize themselves to fit the new situation they lived in. It feels odd to end a review of such a blisteringly funny film on such a somber note, even if the film does so too. Despair at the world stage, and have a great time doing it, especially when Iannucci and co. make it amazingly easy for you to do both, and with remarkable dexterity. In the Loop is able to serve you the black comedy and political despair with ease, and deliciously so.

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