Friday, April 30, 2010

Tribeca: "The Infidel"

The Infidel is a spirited, ballsy comedy that takes on a tricky issue (the friction between Jews and Muslims) with edgy vigor, cloaked behind its broad humor and jovial leading man. It’s a tremendous balancing act that director Josh Appignanesi and writer David Baddiel pull off here; it mines considerable comic gold from a topic that’s not exactly at the top of anyone’s “funny issues” list.

Omid Djalili plays Mahmud Nasir, a moderate British Muslim who, near the story’s beginning, gets the news that the mother of his son’s fiancĂ©e has just wed Arshad El Masari (Yigal Naor), a well-known radical Muslim activist who Mahmud dubs “Fundamentalist Fatty Fatwa-Face.” But El Masari must give his blessing to the young couple, so Mahmud promises to live up to the request of his son (Amit Shah) to convince him that they’re “proper Muslim.” And then there’s a bombshell: in going through the papers of his deceased mother, he discovers that she doesn’t have his birth certificate, but does have his certificate of adoption. He never knew, nor did he knew that his birth parents were (gasp) Jewish. So there’s a potential conflict of interest there—he must keep the revelation secret from his family—but it also prompts an identity crisis within Mahmud.

Baddiel’s script sets up the pins of the story smoothly, gingerly, and then knocks them down with precision; he and Appignanesi know how to build a comic sequence and pay it off. Indeed, much of the picture functions as a series of comic blackout sketches, held together by the broad strokes of the narrative and several well-cultivated running jokes, like the reactions to his “very Jewish” birth name (“Solly Shimshillewitz”) and everyone’s hatred of finger quotes.

The picture is anchored by the inventive comic performance of Djalili, a stand-up comedian and actor who brings a quick-thinking improvisational energy to his role; there are few things in the film as simple but funny as his scene in the mirror, trying his hand at making “Jewish faces.” But the film is also smart enough to give him a foil and partner in the form of the brilliant Richard Schiff (“Toby” from The West Wing) as Lenny, a Jewish American cabbie who helps Mahmud get in touch with his Jewish side. Schiff, who’s never met a line he couldn’t underplay, is a perfect counterpart to the wound-up Djalili; in the scene where they give a shared toast at a bar mitzvah, they’re like a great vaudeville two-act.

The Infidel dodges charges of anti-Semitism primarily in the deftness and good humor of the playing. Some of these lines (Lenny explains a Jewish Buddhist: “they believe you should renounce all material things, but keep the receipts”) and sequences (Mahmud’s “Jewish lessons” with Lenny, learning to say “oy” and reading Portnoy’s Complaint) sound absolutely offensive on paper, but the light touch of all parties involved brings them off without so much as raising an eyebrow.

In its second hour, the picture loses its sense of pace a bit (it runs 105 minutes but feels longer), and the turn to the serious comes on too hard, too fast with the sad bastard music montage—the playing of a more serious beat in the next scene feels much more genuine (and it is then wisely punctured). As a director, Appignanesi has a nicely unobtrusive visual style, keeping his actors mostly in mediums and allowing them to create their own conversational rhythms, but he’s at a bit of a loss in big crowd sequences; the closing scene is strong, but he keeps cutting away to bland crowd reaction shots like he’s John Landis or something. Still, The Infidel gets a lot more right than it does wrong—it tackles a potentially inflammatory topic with grace, ease, and big, big laughs. That’s the kind of chance that fewer and fewer films will take these days, and frankly, we’re worse off for it.

"The Infidel" screens May 1 at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

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