Directed by Mira Nair
Written by Mohsin Hamid, Ami Boghani, and William Wheeler
At this point, it’s fairly trite if accurate to acknowledge how drastically the world has shifted since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. An equally cliched argument is how the United States has, since that ill-fated day, alienated the rest of the world with its quickly rising paranoia and single-minded obsession with taking down a presumed Other. The Reluctant Fundamentalist represents a missed opportunity to offer a more three-dimensional presentation of the struggles of a Middle Eastern citizen whose ambitions rival those of his American brothers. The ingredients are present, but the combination doesn’t amount to much.
The inciting event occurs during the opening credits, as an American professor is abducted in Pakistan and one of his colleagues is implicated as being involved. An American agent (Liev Schrieber) reaches out to that colleague, Changez (Riz Ahmed), who weaves a tale about how he, once a driven young businessman, is now a teacher who’s gained enough of a young following that he might be construed as, at least, a terrorist sympathizer. And so, through the use of extensive, frequently unnecessary voiceover narration, we learn Changez’s life story, at least from the time after he graduated from Princeton and began work for a prestigious financial firm on Wall Street, concurrently falling in love with a bohemian photographer (Kate Hudson). But once 9/11 happens, everything’s different. Changez is pulled aside at airports, arrested for crimes he didn’t commit or have ties to, which inspires him to try and grow closer to his Pakistani roots, which pushes away all of his co-workers.
But is Changez a terrorist? And if so, can we relate to him through the choices he makes? The Reluctant Fundamentalist benefits from distance—we have, for the most part, moved far enough away from the trauma and tragedy of 9/11 to not instantly demonize everyone who doesn’t look familiar to us. (The operative word here is “instantly.”) So we may not condone what Changez does (or doesn’t do; the narration, hopping between Schreiber and Ahmed’s characters, can be read as unreliable to a point), but we may be able to grasp why he took a certain road. When this film, based on the novel by Mohsin Hamid (who had a hand in writing the film with Ami Boghani and William Wheeler), remains austere if moody, it works. Unfortunately, The Reluctant Fundamentalist tends to veer between such quiet filmmaking and screechy melodrama. The romance between Changez and Erica, the New Age artist, for example, escalates nicely in the first half, but once Erica’s new exhibit goes up, heavily inspired by her time with Changez, the ensuing argument feels more appropriate to a daytime soap opera.
The same goes for Changez’s transition from upwardly mobile financier to fiercely loyal countryman. At one point, his boss (Kiefer Sutherland, low-key except for a confrontation in which his eyes bulge so much, they nearly push his glasses off his nose) reminds Changez that his pain and strife is a mere iota of what people from his homeland without his opportunities have to deal with on a daily basis. So although Changez may be justified in some of his actions, or at least in becoming increasingly bitter at America’s treatment of other foreign nationals, he’s this close to a silver-spoon kid choosing to rebel once he realizes the world around him isn’t so pristine as he assumed. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is not so nuanced to delve deeply enough into Changez to at least more fully illustrate these complexities, merely present them as a passing glance.
Ahmed cuts a compelling figure, shifting subtly but consistently throughout. Changez’s growth as a person is sometimes a bit too spelled out, but Ahmed’s performance is solid enough to be convincing. Schreiber and Hudson, the two recognizable American performers, are somewhat stranded in roles that function less as characters and more as excuses to place famous enough actors to make this indie story more palatable to wider audiences. Ahmed is charismatic enough to shoulder the film, but The Reluctant Fundamentalist is too content to stay in a low gear. Until a fairly (and purposely) messy finale, this new film from Mira Nair looks appropriately jittery and unsure, but also a bit familiar, slightly commonplace. When the book was released in 2007, this story may have felt fresher and more immediate. In 2013, it suffers from feeling more shallow than other films exploring the same vast, rich territory.
— Josh Spiegel