Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Looping Into In the Loop

In the Loop is a new movie written and directed by one of Britain's leading comedy creators and impresarios, Armando Iannucci.

This is my personal preview of the movie, set to open this week here in the USA. I haven't seen the movie yet -- I am eagerly anticipating it -- but I've seen and heard most of Armando Iannucci's previous work. I thought I'd get my thoughts in order before viewing it.

If you've paid attention to good British TV and radio comedy (yes, they still have real radio comedy in the UK beyond skits, prank calls, and DJ banter -- and lots of it is good) in the past couple decades, you know the work of Armando Iannucci. Some of my favorite things he's been involved with are:

On the Hour, a seminal fake news radio program.
The Day Today, the TV version of On the Hour -- very funny.
Alan Partridge (played by Steve Coogan) in his various radio and TV incarnations.
Various Lee & Herring shows
Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle, in which the funny is funnified.
Time Trumpet
The Thick of It, about which more below.

Along the way Iannucci gave huge boosts to the careers of Chris Morris, Steve Coogan, Richard Herring, Stewart Lee, Doon Mackichan Chris Addison, Rebecca Front, Peter Baynham, Patrick Marber, and many others.

Two points about the lists above: from his efforts with these programs and people alone, Iannucci will have a lasting impact on comedy. And if all you've seen of British Comedy is The Office (as good as it is) and Little Britain, you are missing some of the smartest and funniest stuff on the planet.

It's hard for me to identify a through-line on Iannucci's comic sensibility, in part because it's likely changed during his long tenure, but also because it's multifarious. He's had a hand in sitcom, satire, parody, and surreal comedy. His production work has extended to standup (Stewart Lee's recent program), a new take on old-fashioned sitcom (Lab Rats), fake cinema-verite, and outright falsified history (2004: The Stupid Version). One thing that makes his comedy so varied is that he picks funny people and turns them loose to do what only they can do.

His own material (mainly on his various self-named series) has a strong dose of the bizarre and surreal atop absurd tilting at serious topics.

All these streams of his sensiblity have come together in recent years in his TV show The Thick of It, which is set near -- but not quite in the nexus -- of the centers of power in Whitehall: a relatively low-wattage fictional government department (the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship). As Iannucci said recently concerning his new movie:
"I want even people who might think, "Oh, it's all about politics" to actually know that it's really just about office politics really."
That's the central conceit of The Thick of It: the offices involved are full of great comic characters wonderfully played, scheming (mainly from the periphery of power) about various machinations that impinge on them from higher up the food chain.

In the TV show, the character who provides the audience's point-of-view portal to this world is the relatively normal young Junior Policy Advisor Olly, played by Chris Addison. The character who seems to suck up most of the air in each episode is the volcanically and creatively profane Malcolm Tucker, embodied by Peter Capaldi. (I believe Malcolm Tucker is modeled on a real person: Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair's spin doctor-- kind of like Blair's Karl Rove -- who was prone to screaming vulgarities as a tool of intimidation.)

Hand-held camera gives a cinema-verite feel, but the characters don't break the fourth wall [I'm looking at you, The Office]: the viewer is an omniscient and unnoticed observer, which gives the action a natural texture. Adding to this is the limited improvisation: while the plot and character points are largely pre-written, the actors are encouraged to improvise the words and manner they use. This makes for a realistic conversational tone, as well as some immensely florid verbal brutality.

The movie In The Loop is set in the same "world" and some of the actors are the same, but most of the characters are new -- apparently only Peter Capaldi's vulgarian Malcolm Tucker remains, which should be fun.

To me as an American, the addition of US-centric actors (especially James Gandolfini) and events (the leadup to a stupid war) mean I'll be seeing a bit of the US through Iannucci's eyes. That will be most welcome.

In the Loop opens this Friday in selected theaters in the USA.

Early reviews are quite good (it currently has a 77 rating at Metacritic, from 6 reviewers, with only the New Yorker's Anthony Lane being relatively unimpressed (spoilsport!). Reports out of Sundance Festival, where it premiered, were positive. * See update

When I see it, I'll post a few thoughts here.

Iannucci has given a few US interviews recently:

* UPDATE As of 11:30 p.m. on Thursday, the reviews have improved impressively: Metascore is now 84 from 15 reviewers, which makes among the top 10 best-reviewed current movies -- better than even Star Trek. That may not last, but it at least will be very well acclaimed overall no matter how the remaining critics weigh in.

Also, Armando Iannucci is slated to be a guest on Charlie Rose on Friday, July 24 (tomorrow). Check your local listings.

Update: Friday, 24 July, noon: The NY Times has put up clips of earlier Iannucci work with short intros written by Armando I. Covers some of the same topics as the post above, and quite informative (plus some good clips).

Final Update:
Two more of my posts about In the Loop:

My review, written just after seeing it. In short, it's great.

And a collection of links, video and audio about the movie, mainly related to the US release.

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