The English actor Tom Hollander does a lot with a little: He's not what anyone would call a tall, dashing figure, particularly considering that he's most often called upon to portray annoying little men. But even when he's playing a self-important bumbler or a persnickety authority figure -- the two types of second-banana roles he's so often been cast in, in movies like "Pride & Prejudice" and the "Pirates of the Caribbean" pictures -- I find myself marveling at how much charm and dignity there is in his very carriage. Even in the smallest and most unglamorous of roles, Hollander has an unstudied elegance that most leading men would kill for. He's always a mischievous, intelligent presence: Even his eyebrows understand the proper definition of irony.
In Armando Iannucci's wry little political satire "In the Loop" -- which Iannucci calls a "cousin" to his popular BBC comedy series "The Thick of It" -- Hollander plays Simon Foster, a British government minister who, during a radio Q&A session, casually remarks that a U.S.-instigated war in the Middle East is "unforeseeable." As he listens to the broadcast, the prime minister's director of communications, Malcolm Tucker (played by the wonderful Scottish actor Peter Capaldi), nearly busts a vein, and later storms into Simon's office spouting streams of infinitely creative profanity. (He's the kind of guy who ends phone conversation with the almost cheerily misanthropic "Fuckity-bye.") What on earth was Simon thinking, assuming he was thinking at all? Simon and his own scarily efficient director of communications, Judy Malloy (Gina McKee), set out to clarify the meaning of the faux pas, but Simon only trudges deeper into the muck. "To walk the road of peace, sometimes we need to be ready to climb the mountain of conflict," he tells a group of reporters, which prompts Malcolm to deride him as a "Nazi Julie Andrews."
What follows is a dizzying "Wag the Dog"-style farce, in which the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Diplomacy Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) tries to enlist Simon in her efforts to uncover a secret "War Committee" presided over by one of her Washington nemeses (played by David Rasche). James Gandolfini shows up as a general who's dovish when it suits him and hawkish when it doesn't. There are also two exceedingly young and ambitious aides (played by Chris Addison on the English side, and Anna Chlumsky on the American) who wield more power than they should.
Even as the plot gets crazier and more convoluted, Iannucci keeps his approach understated -- perhaps too much so. Political satire is extremely difficult to pull off in the post Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld era (a that which, as we're finding, has turned out to be the gift that keeps on giving, like herpes). "In the Loop" is clever and lively, but it isn't sharp or nasty enough to cut very deep; at best it's just a peppery trifle.
And yet the jagged rhythms of the movie's dialogue are entertaining in themselves, and it's fun to watch the actors keep their lines spinning and bouncing off each other. Capaldi's Malcolm comes up with ever-more-creative, and ever-more-foul, expletives (many of them involving highly unlikely bestiality scenarios), which come rolling at us in Capaldi's rippling Scottish cadences. Before long, the crudeness of the language fades away and we're left with the seductive sound of it, which is something like music, an obscene sea shanty for the modern age.
And then there's Hollander's Simon, an elfin mangler of world affairs. Thrilled to be invited to Washington -- it doesn't occur to him that he's just Karen's pawn -- he and his assistant stare out the window of their hotel room, gazing beyond a cruddy construction site to glimpse a tiny sliver of the Capitol Building. But still, this is Washington, glamour capital of world politics, and Simon's body language -- he stands straight and proud, his spine a model of sturdy efficiency -- tells us he's going to enjoy every minute of his stay.
Cut to Simon stretched out on his bed in his undershorts, dolefully eating his room-service meal. Later, after both his career and world affairs have really begun to unravel, he finds himself in the meditation room at the United Nations, pondering his fate. Distraught, he opens a tin of mints and begins laying them, methodically, on the surface of a marble table. This little gesture, madness miniaturized, isn't laugh-out-loud funny; it's the kind of funny that hits you obliquely, in a way you can't explain. Those mints may be very small. But in Holland's hands, they're curiously strong.