Though arriving here at a tense international moment for Israel and the Palestinian territories, the British comedy "The Infidel" is an admirably cagey effort to mine humor from the thorny cultural and racial divide that is Muslim-Jewish relations. Weeble-shaped U.K. comedian Omid Djalili stars as Mahmud, an East London husband and father whose Muslim bonafides — self-admittedly "relaxed" regarding Islamic attitudes toward swearing, drinking and fasting — are put to the test when his son is set to marry the stepdaughter of a controversial "hate" cleric. But when the death of Mahmud's mother unearths the inconvenient truth that he was born Jewish, he goes into a full-on tailspin.
Screenwriter David Baddiel has a fair amount of expected fun with Mahmud's internal — and occasionally profanely vocal — crisis of identity and faith. And thanks to some witty underplaying and Josh Appignanesi's unobtrusive direction, Mahmud's newly thawed exchanges with a Jewish neighbor ( Richard Schiff) he confides in (and gets insta-lessons in Jewish custom from) have a prickly gap-bridging charm.
But the inevitable mopping up of a split-open plot is treated with discouragingly lazy tidiness, when the goodwill earned from a sympathetically messy comic idea — plus Djalili's skilled turn as an active and reactive laugh-getter — deserves more.
"The Infidel." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. Playing at Laemmle Sunset 5, West Hollywood.