Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The Infidel movie review, plus thoughts on comedy

I generally don't enjoy comedies. I enjoy laughing as much as anyone, I just find most of what passes for humour in film to be dumbed-down, content-free, and juvenile, as if - particularly with mainstream American cinema - most filmmakers believe that since something is a comedy, it is less serious, and can thus play by more relaxed rules than a film in another genre, allowing for vulgarity, racism, sexism, narrative incoherence, and simple silliness - the use of childish coincidences or unlikely and too-obvious plot devices - to take hold; often, what is "supposed" to be funny in mainstream comedies just looks stupid to me. Having been disappointed so many times in trying to find things that actually amuse me, I rarely rent anything in the genre. Even a (relatively) recent "hit" like Little Miss Sunshine seemed so trivial and poorly constructed (despite a terrific performance by Alan Arkin) that it put me off renting other raved-about comedies for months.

The comedies I do have regard for are few and far between:

Happiness: it's dark and troubling and transgressive - including images of young boys as seen through the eyes of a pedophile, whose family is the center of the drama - but it's also the funniest, smartest film I've seen Todd Solondz do (although on first viewing, if you have a heart, you'll be too stunned and horrified to laugh - or writhing in sympathetic pain as the characters in the film are humiliated and disappointed again and again and again). It says something about my faith in Solondz overall that I haven't even seen the sequel, but Happiness is my favourite film comedy, bar none. (I had similar fondness for the British version of the TV series The Office, which often sets out to make viewers squirm).

The films of Alex Cox: while they're not necessarily best described as comedies, all of them are rich with humour, often of a surreal, in-jokey, perhaps even slightly elitist sort - because you have to be a fairly alert person to even "get it," in some cases (cf. the "no swearing" rule in Straight To Hell - it certainly took me more than one viewing to figure out that all the characters were restricted to saying things like "darn" or "gosh" or "dag-blasted" - or whatever it is they actually say; I haven't taken notes). Paying attention is half the fun; as outlandish as his films sometimes are, overall, Cox's cinema is like a pencil sharpener for your brain. And of course, I also have great fondness for the "comedies" of Luis Bunuel, like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie, which Cox's Three Businessmen resonates with - though my bar-none favourite of those of the Bunuels I've seen, The Brute, is not particularly funny.

The films of Gregg Araki: not all of them are comedies per se, and they're not of equal value to me, but certainly one of Araki's films, Smiley Face, is utterly hilarious: a very smart, valuable film about America today, using marijuana (and a young woman who is very fond of it, wonderfully played by Anna Faris) as its focal point. It is the least stupid and most provocative of the recent crop of pot comedies. Also a fan of The Living End and The Doomsday Generation, his two funniest, sharpest gay-themed films.

The films of Terry Zwigoff: there's something a bit too light and a little too agreeable about some of them, but at their best, Zwigoff offers a very jaundiced perspective on his targets; of his non-documentaries, I'm particularly fond of Art School Confidential and Bad Santa (which, say what you will about it, is the only Christmas movie I've seen that I'm prepared to watch again).

There are a few others. Of the now seemingly spent Mumblecore "movement," I genuinely enjoyed the Duplass brothers' Baghead, which I wrote about somewhere below. Their new film, Cyrus, has some brilliant moments, and is a must-see for fans of John C. Reilly; it also deserves an award for "the best use of the Human League's 'Don't You Want Me' in a film" - though not all of the relationships in Cyrus are particularly believable. Cassavetes' Minnie and Moskowitz is arguably a comedy, and certainly fun to watch; I have a harder time thinking of Husbands as one, even though it was described thus on its poster, so am not really considering it here. If Monkey Warfare can be best described as a comedy, I'm down for that - or Don McKellar's Last Night and Child Star. I enjoyed, but have not seen in a long time, the Jules Feiffer adaptation, Little Murders. Ditto Robert Altman's Brewster McCloud and Robert Downey's Greaser's Palace. And of classic cinema, though it is often cynical, I have great love for some of the work of Billy Wilder, especially The Apartment, A Foreign Affair, and Sabrina (I am not a fan of Some Like It Hot or The Seven Year Itch, mind you - even some of his films are too light). There are probably a few films that I'm forgetting, but overall, these are the sorts of comedies I truly enjoy - and yes, I've deliberately left out the comedies of the Coen brothers (too broad and trivial, though Burn After Reading scored points for its depiction of the phenomenally confused state of American intelligence) and Woody Allen (too self-obsessed and pretentious, though threaded through with moments of brilliance).

All that being said, the new comedy The Infidel is very, very funny, and will appeal to anyone with a taste for political, ethnic, or religious wit; one could imagine Russell Peters fans having a great time watching it, since like his stand-up routines, it's sharply observed, highly pointed, and unafraid to poke into taboo areas. The premise alone should convey at least some of the humour in it: Mahmud Nasir, a highly "relaxed" middle-aged British Muslim, discovers in the same week that he is to be related by marriage to a controversial Islamist cleric, AND that he was adopted shortly after his birth. In fact, his birth parents were Jewish, and his name at birth was Solly Shimshillewitz. While his son is pushing him to be a better Muslim, so as to win the approval of his soon-to-be father in law, Mahmud - wonderfully played by comic Omar Djalili - is more concerned with winning the approval of his newly discovered birth father, Izzy, on his deathbed at a senior's home: the Rabbi looking after him won't even let him in the door unless he can "prove his Jewishness." There are all sorts of delightful details in the film (like a brief background shot of the Mosque parking lot, with its marked "Imam" spaces) and one brilliantly funny set up involving Mahmud's new yarmulke. The film does resolve its drama in a somewhat silly fashion, with Mahmud finding an unlikely bit of "dirt" on the Islamist cleric and confronting him, but it's funny enough throughout that you'll forgive the slightly weak ending. What's particularly nice about it is that while other comedies touching on the Middle East generally are skewed to one side of the conflict there or the other - I don't imagine You Don't Mess with the Zohan has many Palestinian admirers - I think both The Infidel will appeal to Jews, Arabs, Muslims, and pretty much anyone with a taste for comedy (tho' perhaps Islamist clerics won't like it much, or people who defend the state of Israel in principle against ALL the objections made to its excesses, since the film does presume a liberal position on the occupied territories). While I owe it to my readers to mention that it IS now available on video, I should also add that like most other comedies, given the social nature of humour, this film is best seen with an audience, and begins a theatrical run in late February at the Vancity Theatre. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In the Loop by Armando Iannucci?