Inoffensive Infidel misses the mark

Timothy Barber
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Cert: 15

IN this David Baddiel-scripted film Brit comedian and sometime Hollywood actor Omid Djalili plays Mahmud, a slobbish dad and barely-practising Muslim who finds out that he was adopted – and that his birth parents were orthodox Jews. His birth father is dying, but an officious rabbi (Matt Lucas) won’t let them meet until Mahmud has learned about being Jewish.

This is treated as a cultural rather than a faith issue, and the only person Mahmud can turn to for help is his arch enemy Lenny, a grouchy New Yorker (The West Wing’s Richard Schiff) working – you have to accept a massive amount of crowbarring here – as a London cabbie.

Djalili and Schiff are both class acts, and the film’s best moments involve their developing relationship as Lenny takes Mahmud through the ways of oy veys, Jewish shrugs and Bar Mitzvah speeches. But the jokes are predictable and increasingly thin on the ground. A badly-conceived sub-plot about the betrothal of Mahmud’s son to the daughter of a radical Islamist cleric eventually takes the film over, and the comedy withers as one unbelievable twist after another squeezes the life out of it.

There’s a rich comic seam to be mined in London’s religious and cultural mix, but David Baddiel hasn’t managed to find it in his script for The Infidel. Though able to draw for inspiration on his own Jewish roots and the multi-layered issues around Islamic faith in modern Britain, Baddiel’s so keen to avoid offence that he avoids amusing us very much as well.

The Infidel is well-intentioned, but it’s just not funny enough or smart enough to sustain its premise.

Cert: 12A

AFTER making the entire world blub as she waved off ET, raising hell as a teenager and kicking butt as a Charlie’s Angel, Drew Barrymore has now stepped behind the camera for this seriously enjoyable slice of girl power on roller skates.

If that sounds a little unusual, there’s much about Whip It that’s pretty familiar, mixing as it does teenage coming-of-age issues with the triumph of a sporting underdog. Ellen Page, she of the teen pregnancy in 2008’s Juno, plays Bliss, a girl who reluctantly takes part in beauty pageants to please her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), but discovers an altogether more appealing scene in the world of roller derby. That’s an all-girl contact sport with a punky, underground sensibility, in which teams whiz around an oval track and knock the heck out of each other in the process.

It’s a scene in which players dress up like goth cheer-leaders, adopt names like Smashley Simpson (Barrymore herself), Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig) and Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis) and get in some serious rough and tumble. Bliss – or Babe Ruthless in her new guise – not only finds a sisterhood with which she feels at home, but has the chance to raise her team from also-rans to contenders. But what will mom say?

With terrific performances, a great script and a steady hand on the tiller from Barrymore, Whip It is whip smart entertainment.

The Donmar Warehouse

MARK Haddon won a whole heap of plaudits for his 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which looked at the issue of family break-up through the eyes of an autistic boy. In his first play, Haddon has turned his attention to another form of mental illness, bipolarity. Jodhi May plays Kay, a disturbed young woman who dreams of being an author and illustrator of children’s books, and who veers between manic highs, overwhelming lows and warm-hearted lucidity. Richard Coyle is the mild-mannered philosophy professor who falls for her, marries her, and must cope with her vertiginous swings.

The problem of how to handle mental disorder has dramatic potential, but Haddon decides to roll into it ideas about philosophy, religion, the meaning of life and goodness knows what else – I lost track – and in so doing bites off more than he or his audience can chew. Between poetic flights of fancy and meandering lectures on Nietzsche and rational thought, a Jesus figure wanders onto the stage to discuss how painful crucifixion can be and the various stages of bodily putrefaction after death. He even drags on a cadaver to illustrate. It’s all a bit much.

May is elegant, endearing and convincing in the role of Kay, and Coyle does his best to make the prof interesting and sympathetic. There is also strong support from Celia Imrie and Paul Hilton as Kay’s mother and brother, both of whom have failed to deal with her in their different ways.
But the play – staged on a stark, bare set – wanders off into philosophical black holes from which it too seldom returns. An audience member near me snored loudly through much of it, and I couldn’t blame him.