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One-liners, a barrage of pop-culture references, and caricatures of slow-moving targets can be exhausting, even when done well. In the Loop is a feature-length walk-and-talk, Scottish writer-director Armando Iannucci’s big-screen debut based on his BBC political-comedy series, The Thick of It. Like a cross between The Office and The West Wing, the film proffers sharp satire as it skewers British and U.S. red-tape relations. But its whiplash, joke-a-second pace may eventually have you tuning out instead of gasping for breath.
In the Loop follows the administrations of bumbling U.K. cabinet minister, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), and American officials Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) and Linton Barwick (David Rasche) as they tussle over the legitimacy of our country’s reasons for war. The former two advocate peace, but Foster, his new assistant (Chris Addison), and his expletive-happy press secretary (Peter Capaldi) decide they need to fly to D.C. to smooth over Foster’s slip of the tongue on a radio program that made him sound pro-war. Meanwhile, Clarke finds out about Barwick’s secret war committee and heads proceed to butt as the film’s legion of major and minor characters run around, bark into cell phones, and strategize about how to undermine the opposition.
Iannucci’s debut is well-orchestrated chaos, filmed with The Office’s zoom-in-and-out documentary style, with a cast that makes every utterance snap. Adversaries nickname each other with movie titles (“What the fuck’s Cocoon doing here?”) and swear like sailors, with some of the most inventive threats and vulgarisms ever put to screen. Standouts include Kennedy, who resembles Jane Curtain and is just as dry; Hollander, who puts a simultaneously sharp yet clueless modern spin on his odious Mr. Collins from 2005’s Pride and Prejudice; and Capaldi, whose vicious damage-controller makes it clear why he’s best working behind the scene. The humor revolves around very young staffers (“When I left, I tripped over his fucking umbilical cord”), constant missteps (“You’re in hot water—you’re lobsterizing”), and a general sense of burnout (Foster refers to his constituents as “slightly mentally dispossessed”—while having a meeting with one of them). James Gandolfini also has a small, caustic role as a Pentagon-entrenched general.
But like reading the headlines or OD’ing on CNN, there’s a risk of audience burnout as well. There’s hardly a quiet moment throughout the film’s 106 minutes, which may be representative of the milieu but doesn’t necessarily translate into entertaining viewing. Your head spins as you laugh and try to catch every punch line. And then, just like the more easily confused politicos, you leave In the Loop feeling rather out of it instead.