“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is an ambitious movie that wrestles with some really big themes like cultural identity, international terrorism policy, and a little relationship drama thrown in for good measure.
I suppose the movie is trying to say that the shaping of an individual’s political motivations is a complicated process, which is all well and good, but the film winds up unnecessarily complicating itself along the way. It’s disorienting, sort of like finding yourself taking an algebra test in history class.
This is the story of a young Pakistani man from a middle-class family who goes to America to seek his fortune. When we first meet the not-so-subtly-named Changez (played with star-making conviction and charisma by Riz Ahmed), he is back in Pakistan working as a controversial professor.
He tells his story in flashback to an American journalist (Liev Schreiber) investigating the kidnapping of an American national and thinks Changez might be involved.
Changez comes to America, attends an Ivy League school, and goes to work on Wall Street.
All is going well for Changez. He is smart, ambitious and his career is placed on the fast track by his approving boss (Keifer Sutherland at his icy cool best).
He even lands an artistic girlfriend (Kate Hudson), and the two get along great, in spite of the fact that she is toting around a shipping container of emotional baggage.
Then comes Sept. 11, 2001, and everything changez, er changes. Changez gets swept up in the paranoia and jingoism that gripped the country in the ensuing months. He is subjected to indignities at the airport, blatant racism, and constant whispers around the office.
When combined with second thoughts about a career as a bloodsucking corporate downsizer, Changez begins to realize that America isn’t the place for him.
This is right about where the movie loses its way. Changez’s return to Pakistan is glossed over, mostly to conceal the film’s central mystery of whether or not Changez has become a full-blown terrorist.
By keeping things muddled the film’s ultimate resolution isn’t particularly satisfying, and it can’t really decide if it wants to make the case that America’s stumbles in the Middle East are caused by ignorance, fundamental misunderstandings, or just dumb luck.
“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” was directed by Mira Nair, a very talented filmmaker who is known for finding common threads of humanity amidst cultural clashes. She does just that, but here she struggles with the tone because she can’t quite make up her mind if she is directing an introspective think-piece, a relationship drama, or a taut thriller.
The best thing to come from this film is Ahmed, who stays true to his character even as the movie wanders about. He delivers a charming and engrossing performance that makes the movie worth watching in spite of all its flaws.
This is a breakout performance and we should be seeing much more of Ahmed provided he avoids the deadly trap of typecasting.
At any rate “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is an interesting movie with some interesting performances, it’s just too unwieldy for its own good.
“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is rated R for language, some violence, and brief sexuality.