‘The Reluctant Infidel’ – Movie Review

Humour’s a funny thing (heh heh – sorry). So often I sit there po-faced in comedies while the rest of the cinema crowd rolls about, overcome with hilarity.

A couple of weeks back watching The Other Guys, for example, I barely raised a smirk, yet all around young males (mostly) guffawed, stamped their feet, clapped their approval in the darkness even (never have seen the point of clapping at a movie screen, but there ya go).

Is it an age thang? Maybe, in the case of The Other Guys. But I think not. After the movie I ran into someone I know who’s a much older fart than I who laughed all the way through it. Besides, I got the jokes – I just didn’t find them funny.

Same went for The Four Lions. I thought that was real shite. Jihadist characters dumber than the Three Stooges, but not remotely funny. Stupid story. And as a satire with pretensions more serious than merely making people laugh – a miserable failure.

So, I wasn’t optimistic fronting up for The Reluctant Infidel (The Infidel in Britain…seems they figured we colonials needed some spoonfeeding). Well, you know what’s coming. Yep, I pissed myself in this one. And yet, some critics have been intemperately damning: for example, Stuart McGurk, in the NME (NB: McGurk’s review is no longer available online).

Dunno what this McGurk burke’s got up his arse, but it doesn’t do much for his temperament, or his sense of humour. And who’s he to moan about a comedy not being funny, anyway? That’s my gig!

Seriously, though, that review of McGurk’s exemplifies something that irritates the hell out of me: that is, a critic bringing personal baggage to a screening and allowing it to infiltrate his review. Supposition on my part, yes, but it makes more sense than putting his stingy response down to personal taste. There’s got to be more to your mega-whinge, Stewie ol’ cock! Anyway…

To the movie. Mahmud Nasir (Omid Djalili) is a second-gen Pakistani Brit Muslim family man who takes his football more seriously than his faith. He doesn’t mind a drink and only irregularly attends his local mosque. When he comes across his birth certificate while sorting through his recently deceased mother’s papers, he discovers that he was adopted, but a bigger shock awaits him – he subsequently learns that he is Jewish!

Writer David Baddiel (who’s an atheist Jew – dig that!) wrings a lot of laughs out of this comically rich premise. Some of the material is a bit obvious, but Omid Djalili more than makes up for the occasional shortfall in the writing with an ebullient and endearing performance, clearly thriving on his character’s struggle to work through his doozie of an identity crisis.

It transpires that Mahmud’s real father is alive – just. However, an Orthodox rabbi (Matt Lucas) who is attending the old man’s deathbed refuses to allow Mahmud past the door until he proves his ‘Jewishness’.

Meanwhile, back on the home front, Mahmud’s son announces his engagement to the daughter of a notorious radical Islamic cleric from Pakistan and entreats his father to prepare for the dreaded meet-the-in-laws moment by grooming himself as a devout Muslim.

The increasingly desperate and beleaguered Mahmud enlists the help of prickly, cynical American Jewish taxi driver neighbour Lenny Goldberg (Richard Schiff) in tutoring him on some Jewish essentials – eg: the proper inflection of “oy”, authentic shrugging with an accompanying hangdog eyeroll, dancing to Fiddler On The Roof, and telling jokes at Bar Mitzvahs. Further, Goldberg prescribes some takeaway reading homework including Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. C’mon, McGurk – you gotta concede… that’s funny! And there’s lots more chuckle material deriving from Mahmud’s balancing act, as he switches between playing the devout Muslim and the plausible Jew.

Beyond the humour of the piece, there is some nice sending up of stereotypes, but an opportunity to go further and denounce religious fundamentalism as the dumb-arsed, toxic, blinkered, and above all ridiculous brand of tyranny it is, is forfeited just when the bonfire is stacked and set for ignition. An opportunity missed, and that’s a pity.

Nevertheless, there is more than enough funny stuff throughout to ensure a jolly time for thee and me (if not for Jerkin’ McGerkin), and much of the humour is well-targeted, eating away at some prejudices and cliched perceptions we would all be better off without.

For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives

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