In The Loop is a wickedly funny political satire, the kind of smart and tart, take-no-prisoners mockery that seldom makes it to screens intact (the last one I can think of, at least that was this skillfully done, was Wag The Dog). Director Armondo Iannucci and his crew of four credited screenwriters (loosely expanding their BBC series The Thick of It) have constructed an admirably zippy picture--it's paced within an inch of its life--where the punch lines are beautifully well-aimed but characterizations are never sacrificed for the easy laugh.
The transatlantic tale is centered on the run-up to an invasion and war; the U.S. is chomping at the bit, the Brits are more hesitant, and the word "Iraq" is never uttered once in the film, but it doesn't have to be. Dim-bulb British Minister for International Development Simon Foster (the terrific Tom Hollander), who is something of a Michael Scott with a cushy government job, flubs a radio interview when he hedges on the invasion, weakly saying it is "unforeseeable." That's just sketchy enough to be seized on by the visiting U.S. Assistant Secretary for Diplomacy (Mimi Kennedy), who is attempting to put the brakes on the invasion, with the help of a report by her top aide, Liza (Anna Chlumsky)--a report that another snarky aide has dubbed "career Kryptonite."
Foster tries to backtrack with some meaningless sloganeering (some nonsense about "climbing the mountain of conflict"), which puts him on the radar of Linton Barwick, a hawk who is fond of revising minutes from important hearings and spouting off such wisdom as (in reference to having too many facts), "in the land of truth, my friend, the man with one fact is the king." Barwick is played by David Rasche in a particularly smug mood; he nails this guy beautifully, and this snappy turn (in addition to his unexpected and uproarious work in last year's Burn After Reading) will hopefully garner some more interesting roles for the man we once knew as Sledge Hammer.
In general, this very British film and its attitudes about American power, both political and military, is on the money; one character, noting the youth of our nation's military advisors, says "it's like Bugsy Malone but with real guns." James Gandolfini, as the general who is against the war (mostly), is very good in a very different kind of role than we're used to. He has a terrific scene where he and Kennedy slip off during a cocktail party into a child's bedroom, where he uses a toy laptop to explain the cost of war; his timing in the scene where he claims to be "the Gore Vidal of the Pentagon" (before rebuffing that description) is razor-sharp.
Gandolfini's General Miller is, like most of the characters in the film, bendable. Most can be talked in or out of just about anything, and are far more likely to spin their mistakes than own up to them--as in the uproarious scene where Foster's aide Toby (Chris Addison) is busted by his girlfriend for sleeping with Liza, and proceeds to try and explain his way out of it with the worst excuse for cheating ever. Chlumsky certainly makes his temptation real, however--where has this actress been? Remembered primarily for her starring turns in the My Girl movies, she's flat-out terrific here, effortlessly projecting a flawless mixture of neuroticism and ambition (and some fine comic timing).
The scene-stealer, however, is Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker, the British Director of Communications. I've often said that good swearing is an art form, and if that's so, Capaldi is a Monet; he paints beautifully with his toxic, inventively vulgar dialogue. He's a force to be reckoned with on screen, a furious tornado of expletives and bile, and he gives a perverse kick to the entire picture. He's right in line with the acidic tone of the narrative, which gives us no easily admirable characters or happy endings--and that's exactly how it should be.
That said, the conclusion feels somehow incomplete. Everything happens that should happen, but the film kind of mumbles away when it's over instead of putting a period on the end of it. It's not helped by the decision to toss some throwaway follow-up and deleted scenes in over the end credits; the upcoming comedy Black Dynamite makes the same mistake, somehow not realizing that you don't want the last thing on-screen to be your weakest material.
These are minor complaints, however; frankly, you're having such a good time with In The Loop, you'll barely notice that it peters out. The dialogue pops--it's sharp, literate, and funny as shit--and the film's wit is so adroit, by the third act they're getting laughs with the edits. It's filled to the brim with accomplished performances by its stellar ensemble cast (Jesus, I didn't even mention Steve Coogan), and has enough throwaway moments and funny lines for any three comedies, with a few zingers left over. In The Loop is a must-see.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.