mon 23/09/2019

The Infidel | reviews, news & interviews

The Infidel

The Infidel

David Baddiel's screenwriting debut, a satire about Jews and Muslims, fails to offend

The Infidel: Omid Djalili as Muslim/Jew Mahmud/Solly gets into a spot of bother

On the face of it, The Infidel should be a hoot. The screenwriting debut of comic David Baddiel, one half of two of the cleverest comedy duos of the past 20 years (Newman and Baddiel, Baddiel and Skinner), and starring stand-up comedian Omid Djalili, it tells the story of a Muslim who discovers after his mother’s death that he was adopted and his birth parents were Jewish. (Let’s overlook for one moment that a similar scenario was given a very funny treatment in 1992’s Leon the Pig Farmer.) The Infidel, directed by Josh Appignanesi, could mine an endless seam of tasteless - offensive, even - religious and cultural jokes, and make mock of the preposterous notion that having differing religious affiliations justifies murdering each other.

It starts well enough as we see Mahmud Nasir (Djalili) going about his daily life as a loving husband and father who owns a London minicab firm. He tries to be a good Muslim but likes the odd beer, often forgets to do his five-times-daily devotions and swears profusely at black-cab drivers. While clearing his mother’s house, he finds his adoption papers; his birth name was Solly Shimshillewitz and a social worker (Miranda Hart) confirms he is Jewish. To add to the religious confusion, his equally laidback son Rashid (Amit Shah) wants to marry Muna (Mina Anwar), but she has to get the approval of her strict Muslim cleric stepfather Arshad El Masri (Yigal Naor) - or “Arshad El fucking Stalin” as the live-and-let-live Mahmud calls him.

So Mahmud has to pretend to be a religious Muslim while discovering his Jewish identity, which mainly involves receiving lessons in how to dance like Topol and how to say “Oy!” Who better to ask for tuition in movement and shoulder shrugs than a Jewish cabbie - for some unfathomable reason played by an American actor, Richard Schiff (Toby from The West Wing), as a drunk. No, me neither. Mahmud lives a double life for a while but eventually gets found out, everyone gets upset and it all descends into farce.

There are some smart lines - “Next time I need a dose of middle-aged Muslim misogyny I’ll call Hanif Kureishi” - but jokes that could have been as dark as you like fizzle out. Hart is for no obvious reason in a wheelchair, which suggests Baddiel had some un-PC jokes that he wimped out of using, and there’s little subtlety in the humour - the fanatical Muslim cleric has a hook for a hand, for chrissakes (to throw another religion into the mix). The very fine Archie Panjabi is underused as Mahmud’s long-suffering wife, the final plot twist is signposted practically in the first scene and, unforgivably, Baddiel goes for a “we’re all one big, happy family” ending.

It’s amusing enough, but two thirds of the way through The Infidel it feels as if Baddiel and Appignanesi lose their bottle and, rather than aim for clever or hard-hitting satire, they settle for feelgood schmaltz. And not even one joke about Muslims and Jews being brothers under the foreskin...

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