With “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” director Mira Nair (“Monsoon Wedding”) turns a novel written as memories and musings into a cliché-laden lesson in how to turn an aspiring young financier into a terrorist sympathizer.
The film is interesting, but it struggles to engage. We are watching as an appealing character has his life rewritten by outside events, but it still has a predetermined feel to it. What can we do?
Riz Ahmed stars as Changez, a Pakistani studying in the United States in the year 2000 who wants to live the American dream – and he is on his way. He lands a job on Wall Street and is considered to be a rising star by his boss (Kiefer Sutherland). Early in the film, before September 2001, he is even able to kid around with fellow students about where they all want to be in 10 years – making a 10-figure salary, owning a company, and, in his case, “being the dictator of an Islamic country with nuclear capabilities.”
The joke brings them up short but is easily shrugged off.
But we already know where Changez is in 10 years. As the movie begins, he is sitting in a present-day tea house in Lahore, Pakistan, explaining to Bobby (Liev Schrieber), an American journalist/CIA operative, that he is not involved in the recent abduction of a U.S. college professor and is being wrongly accused of terrorist connections.
A college instructor himself, Changez agrees to be interviewed for a story about Pakistan’s new “militant academia” if Bobby agrees to listen – really listen – to his whole story, not just the parts he wants to pick out.
And off we go.
Back in New York City in 2000, Changez finds doors opening for him. He gets his job, and he meets and romances a lovely young-but-troubled artist (Kate Hudson) who is on the mend after the death of her boyfriend. Life is good.
And then ....
A plane flies into the World Trade Center.
Then a second plane hits.
And Changez, while horrified at the death and destruction, cannot help but also be dazzled by the audacity of the attacks.
The world changes after 9/11, but our brown-skinned hero doesn’t lose his job, and he doesn’t lose his girl. Nothing big is affected. It is smaller, personal things.
He gets strip-searched at the airport; he gets wrongly arrested when someone reports a ranting Islamic mental patient on the street; he overhears generalized anti-Islamic comments at work.
And he begins to wonder where he really belongs.
His journey of discovery is subtle and slow. Nair has a talent for painting her scenes with an evocative style – the sleek, coldness of the New York offices; the jangling and colorful chaos of the streets of Lahore; the dusty, threatening dimness of the tea house where Bobby and Changez meet – but they all feel a little too familiar.
We hate seeing what is done to Changez, even as we are waiting to see where it has led him.
And then, in the last few minutes, it all plays out in action-movie style, guns drawn, trouble closing in fast, a sympathetic character sacrificed and a quiet coda.
Nair includes an ending with a voice of hope but also with a message that understanding has to go both ways, if we are to get anywhere.
the reluctant fundamentalist
Starring: Riz Ahmed, Kiefer Sutherland, Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber
Director: Mira Nair
Running time: 130 minutes
Rating: R for profanity, some violence and brief sexuality.
The Lowdown: A young Pakistani man is caught in a conflict between the American dream and his homeland.