Film Review: In the Loop

Riotous satire about British politicians ensnared in a U.S. campaign to promote a war in the Middle East. Word-of-mouth potential is high.

The BBC production In the Loop is one of those rare movie comedies that actually lives up to the phrase “laugh a minute.” The feature debut of director and co-writer Armando Iannucci, this droll political satire is an offshoot of an award-winning BBC TV series, "The Thick of It," which centered on a British government minister and his team of wily spin doctors. For the big-screen incarnation, the scope widens to explore the relationship between Britain and the U.S. in the lead-up to an unnamed war (think Iraq), with explosively funny results.

In a radio interview, the U.K.’s incompetent Minister for International Development, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), declares that war is "unforeseeble," then muddies the waters to a murky shade when he tries to revise his comment in a subsequent encounter with the press, proclaiming that Britain "must be ready to climb the mountain of conflict." (The phrase prompts his detractors to dub him “a Nazi Julie Andrews.”) Before long, Simon becomes a pawn in the campaign of alpha-male U.S. State Department honcho Linton Barwick (David Rasche, perfectly cast) to fire up support for an invasion in the Middle East.

The script credited to Iannucci, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche shrewdly views much of this backroom chicanery from the vantage point of various exasperated underlings, most especially Toby (Chris Addison), Simon’s green and easily bullied young political advisor, and Toby’s old college friend Liza (Anna Chlumsky, the onetime child star of My Girl), aide to high-powered liberal diplomat Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) and author of an anti-war brief that plays a key role in the plot.

The film is a true transatlantic ensemble effort, with great comic opportunities for its entire Brit and U.S. cast. As a politician whose ambition far exceeds his intellect, Hollander (Pirates of the Caribbean) ably conveys Simon’s befuddlement without sinking into pure caricature. Peter Capaldi (Local Hero) is hilarious as the volatile, profane Director of Communications for the Prime Minister, who takes the seething insult to a new level of artistry. Kennedy, best known from TV's "Dharma and Greg," is a standout as the high-maintenance Karen, whose embarrassing dental problems may be an outward sign of her neurosis, and James Gandolfini, Tony Soprano himself, gets to show his comic side as a general skeptical of the push toward war. (Well-read, he calls himself "the Gore Vidal of the Pentagon" until someone notes that Vidal is gay.) Kennedy and Gandolfini share one of the film’s most absurdly delightful moments, secretly convening in a child’s bedroom and adding up the pending war’s costs on a toy calculator.

Apart from Gandolfini, the one other “name” familiar to American audiences is Steve Coogan (Night at the Museum, Tropic Thunder), who plays a constituent back home who keeps badgering Simon about a deteriorating backyard wall situated between his home and Simon’s Northampton office—a nuisance that ultimately has an ironic impact on the minister’s career.

Filmed in a faux cinéma-vérité style now very familiar from both the British and U.S. versions of “The Office,” In the Loop nevertheless feels consistently fresh thanks to its bracingly smart take on international relations and political deal-making. Iannucci's movie is partly improvised, which is hard to fathom since the witticisms here seem to flow endlessly. The performances straddle that fine line between the farcical and the utterly credible, giving the impression that this outrageous satire isn't really that far from the awful truth.