No matter how many times you see a Jewish man teaching a Muslim how to act like a Jew, its funny. Especially when the actors in question are The West Wings Richard Schiff, Jewish in real life, and Omid Djalili, playing a north London Muslim of Pakistani descent. Djalilis attempts at the shrug, the oy veys and strangling the language is laugh out loud comedy every time. Thats just as well, as The Infidel tackles head-on the issues of ethnic identity in Britain, and it covers just about every stereotype going. Despite the immense charm of the performances and lots of gags, it cant be described as a complete success after a sagging last 40 minutes and a descent into sentimentality.
The set-up is simple Djalili is Mahmud Nasir, a British Muslim who works at a London cab firm. He is not the strictest Muslim he likes his football, the odd drink and would rather play with his two charming children than pray five times a day. He then discovers he was adopted, and not only that but his birth parents were Jewish, and his real name is Solly Shimshellewitz. He befriends rival cabbie Lenny (Schiff) and tries to learn how to be Jewish so he can gain entry into the home where he believes his real father lies dying.
Heres where the heart of the comedy is. Lenny teaches Solly all the tricks of the trade, then takes Solly to a Bar Mitzvah, with chaotic results. However, as Solly is embracing his new Jewish identity, his family are appalled his gorgeous wife Saamiya (Panjabi) leaves him she thought he was having an affair, or gay, but this is worse and his adorable daughter calls him an infidel. Worse, his son Rashid (Amit Shah) is planning to marry Uzma (Soraya Radford) but her stepfather is a fanatical Muslim who will forbid the bond if Nasir is not strict enough so Rashid is furious with his dad.
Its to the films huge credit that it takes on this highly sensitive material and makes it funny writer David Baddiel has said people are terrified, and when they are terrified, what they should really do is laugh. The gag count is very high and hits all targets equally until that tricky last half hour. For a comedy to become sentimental is a common fault, but here, not only is it sentimental, but it also becomes distinctly uncomfortable politically. The resolution of the Muslim extremist-plot is unconvincing, and almost attempts to bury the Jewish aspect of the story, and theres also a plot twist involving an 80s singer that stretches credibility.
Its a shame, as for the most part its a healthily British comedy of prejudice. The one flawless aspect of the film is its casting to get away with material like this you need top-notch actors, and this is full of them. Djalili has been a surprisingly easy-going screen presence since Casanova, and he is excellent as the confused, slobbish Nasir, a sort of Muslim Homer Simpson. Archie Panjabi is great as his wife, especially in the sequence where she believes he is having an affair, Schiff is on West Wing form as the cranky Lenny, and Naor shows the kind of charisma which won him awards for his portrayal of Saddam Hussein in House Of Saddam. The only let-downs are Matt Lucas as a rabbi, sporting a South African accent for half of his performance and a Golders Green one for the rest, for no obvious reason, an unfunny Paul Kaye and a cameo from Baddiel which adds nothing.
Overall verdict: Brave attempt to exorcise many prejudices about Muslims and Jews in modern-day Britain, with plenty of laughs along the way but a weak final act.
Reviewer: Mike Martin