While films involving stand-up comedians performing their act are often great at making points that can only be made with the leavening of levity, they aren’t known for their sense of purpose, either following the free association of a single performance or the wispy narrative of trailing them on the road. Although “The Muslims Are Coming” picks the second of those tracks, it’s a stronger movie than most in this vein since rewriting a narrative is part of it’s DNA. Plus, it’s pretty damn funny.
From the start, however, it’s clear that co-directors Dean Obeidallah and Negin Farsad, the latter of whom has literally gone down this road before to some extent after co-directing the doc “Nerdcore Rising” about the coast-to-coast travels of the geek MC Frontalot, aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel with a format that largely consists of concert footage, talking heads and spiffy and sunny motion graphics and charts provided by Sopro to power forward. But what’s new is the conversation that they’re trying to start with a tour through the least culturally diverse places in America to replace the fallacy of a single Muslim community bent on destroying America with a more accurate representation of the religion that like all others encompasses people of various beliefs, interests and values.
To that end, Farsad and Obeidallah, both comics in their own right, have brought together a cadre, and quite possibly the majority, of Muslim-American comedians to take their act to places such as Murfreesboro, Tennessee and Salt Lake City to joke about a “two-genital solution” for peace in the Middle East (Farsad’s plea for Israelis and Palestinians to start having babies together) or arriving in America a few days before 9/11 (a featured part of Omar Elba’s set) and seeing the change in perception. In between small tastes of the sets from the likes of Preacher Moss, Kareem Omary, Aron Krader and Maysoon Zayid, the rotating cast can be seen setting up card tables in the middle of the communities they travel to for such games as “Name That Religion” or “Ask a Muslim,” which inevitably reveal how little other Americans actually know about the Muslim faith (as well as their own, in most cases) and those interludes are augmented by interviews with comedians such as Jon Stewart and David Cross, pundits including Rachel Maddow and Cenk Uygur and other notables such as Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Keith Potok, CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien and Imam Shamsi Ali.
At just 85 minutes, “The Muslims Are Coming” runs at a rapid clip, rarely allowing one laugh to die down before provoking another, though the film is not without some missed opportunities. Despite presenting upfront a rundown of the many comics who will be appearing on the tour in a way that suggests they’re all given something close to equal screen time, Farsad and Obeidallah take up the lion’s share of both on screen and on stage and while they’re clearly the driving forces of the film, it detracts from the diversity of voices that the film so clearly prizes. Some of “The Muslims Are Coming”‘s most provocative story strands also seem to be the ones the film seems to dispatch most quickly, from the all-too-brief time spent with Zayid, a live wire who deals in her act with her cerebral palsy and virginity, and Elba, a flamethrower who isn’t kidding when discussing how it’s important to him just how Muslim you are. Moments such as when Farsad breaks into tears over a group of women in hijabs leaving in the midst of her set in Tucson over some sex jokes give the impression that for its two stars/directors, nothing was off-limits, but they were far more cautious with the light tone and the narrow scope of the spotlight than they are with the material they go through on stage.
Still, “The Muslims Are Coming” achieves what it sets out to accomplish, offering an entrance point for a culture too few know much about in a consistently engaging way. Contrary to Obedeillah’s crack at the beginning that a tour through unfriendly country would be a “one-way trip,” the film proves to be territory worth revisiting if not just for the enlightenment, for the laughs.