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The Infidel: Where Borat meets Little Mosque on the Prairie

The Infidel stars Omid Djalili as Mahmud Nasir.

2 out of 4 stars


At least The Infidel is an equal-opportunity blasphemer, and God bless it for that. Otherwise, this thing plays like a cheeky Brit-com blown up to feature length, with a thin coat rack of plot to hang the ethnic humour on, and a wish to offend without being offensive.

The script wants to push the hot buttons of race and religion, yet too often lacks the courage of its Borat convictions. So, like a comedy agnostic, the picture straddles the fence, scathing one moment and tepid the next. At best, it's Little Mosque on the Prairie but with some real satiric teeth. At worse, it's, well, just Little Mosque on the Prairie.

You gotta love Omid Djalili, though. Who? Mainly a stand-up comic who, with a push from writer David Baddiel, has wended his rotund way to the big screen and, in this case, stays on it pretty much continually. We meet him in London as Mahmud, a second-generation Anglo-Pakistani who has assimilated all too well. Short, chubby and balding, speaking with a rude Cockney accent, the guy is an East Asian Bob Hoskins with a vocabulary to match - the kind who arms every sentence with a payload of f-bombs. As for his faith, Mahmud is a "relaxed Muslim," relaxed enough to go light on his daily prayers and heavy on his pale ale.

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Naturally, his wife is long-suffering and his son devout. In fact, the kid announces his plan to marry the daughter of a fundamentalist cleric called Arshad Al-Masri, better known to the horrified Mahmud as (I'm using only his politest choices) "El-Stalin" or "Fatty Fatwa Face." Nevertheless, being a loving daddy, he vows to clean up his language and assume a good Islamic posture when the cleric comes calling.

Enter that coat-rack plot with its switched-at-the-cradle premise. Sorting through the papers of his late mother, our portly hero discovers he was adopted at the tender age of two weeks. His birth name? Well, turns out Mahmud is really Solly - as in Solly Shimshillewitz. So the lax Muslim is also a true Jew, plunging him into an instant identity crisis and the movie into its fence-straddling posture. Upset by the news, he first tries his hand at a little self-hating anti-Semitism, bellowing out stereotypical slurs that are warmly received by his Pakistani buddies. Yes, at this point the laughs have an uncomfortable edge and the satire promises to be Swiftian, the risky brand that makes you squirm.

Alas, the promise gets broken when Mahmud does some fence-straddling himself, attending pro-Palestine rallies by day while exploring his Jewish roots by night. To that latter purpose, his unlikely mentor is Lenny Goldberg (Richard Schiff), an American ex-pat who instructs him in all things " oy vey."

Most of this is just a farcical extension of the same stereotyping, like a Borscht-belt comedian given licence to poke fun at his own kind. Still, a Jackie Mason routine can be funny, and this is no exception. Like the Jewish word-association game - "Car": "Volvo"; "Happy": "Ish"; "Crystal": "Nacht." Also, as the action shifts to a merry bar mitzvah, where a Jewish cousin has converted to Buddhism, Lenny's assessment is hard to resist: "He believes you should renounce all material possessions but still keep the receipts."

I'm afraid that's as good as it gets. Beyond that (aided by a lame climax and some too-busy direction), it's a slippery slope into the shallow pool of a tepid morality play, where faux clerics get their comeuppance and real devotees get their due. And when the comedy ends with the inevitable wedding, where all races and creeds dance their differences away, who can doubt that The Infidel has regained its faith in all things bland and dutiful?

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Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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