Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Infidel (2010)

  British stand-up David Baddiel-scripted comedy not only shares an actor with East Is East (1999), but also shares its strengths (albeit very mildly) and frustrating weaknesses (in freakish abundance). And until Three Lions (2010) is released, it will fill the vacant spot of self-deprecating Muslim / Jewish (delete as necessary) comedy in our cinemas.

  Omid Djalili (another British comedian who is all the rage on the East Side of the Pond with his ubiquitous TV ads) is the minicab driver, Mahmoud. He is sorta, kinda Muslim - he goes to mosque when he feels like it, he admits to enjoy an occasional pale ale, and he yells "Christ" left and right when he gets angry with London cabbies. After his mother's death he finds out that he was adopted and - shock! horror! - his real name was Sully Shimshilewski (he's Jewish, see?). Amidst this unexpected identity crisis, his son is marrying a girl whose new stepfather is an extremist Muslim cleric who will visit Mahmoud's home and subsequently bless the marriage.

  Meanwhile, Mahmoud /Sully, who has had father issues since early childhood, finds out that his birth father is still alive, living out his last days in a nursery home. He is guarded my Matt Lucas's unfunny rabbi, who will only let Mahmoud / Sully see his father if he learns the Jewish way of life. Cue, Lenny Goldberg ("The West Wing"'s Richard Schiff) - the American cabbie (in London?).

  The problem with The Infidel is not that it isn't funny (Omid Djalili gives a great performance and there are some pretty hilarious scenes), but that it doesn't really bite. If you are expecting a Life of Brian-like glorious blasphemy, look away - you won't find it here. It doesn't necessarily have to be spiteful or overly critical (one way or another) of any particular religion either, but it needs to keep up the promise of its premise. Sadly and very, very frustratingly (that word again), The Infidel falls short on all counts. Even East Is East managed to sneak in plaster cast of female genitalia in there. The most scathing (?) joke is when an imam mistakes Mahmoud's crisis as sexual and not religious.

  What the script tries to do (and it makes sure that our head is clobbered many times in the horrid third act) is to show that we can all live together happily ever after. Cheesy and predictable, yes, but well-meaning. I wouldn't want it to end in another note, but why try to show this through a cliche-ridden plot, when you can really nitpick from thousands of years of (dare I say it? yes I will) hypocrisy? Again, I'm not looking for an agnostic or an atheistic point-of-view. I want to be entertained and I want my comedy to push the boundaries. In the age of "South Park" and "Family Guy", films like The Infidel fall drastically short on "funny" and "edgy".

  It is disappointing and I have a nagging feeling that with a little bit more budget and backing by a more daring producer (apparently BBC chickened out so as not to offend the license-payers), The Infidel could have been a very funny film - a Life of Brian for Islam. Sadly, we are still missing an all-out satire for a religion that occupies our mass media every single day.

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