The Reluctant Fundamentalist: A Timely Movie About the Allure of Radicalism Fails to Deliver on Its Promise

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April 26 2013 1:35 PM

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

It’s reluctant all right.

Riz Ahmed (right) and Kiefer Sutherland in The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
Riz Ahmed (right) and Kiefer Sutherland in The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Courtesy of IFC Films

As the country struggles to understand what could have motivated two seemingly assimilated young Chechen-Americans to plant a bomb at the Boston Marathon and cut a swath of destruction through the city, the release of Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, an adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel about a young Pakistani man in the U.S. who’s drawn to religious terrorism after 9/11, would seem to be ideally timed. Unfortunately, you leave The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a meandering character portrait turned political thriller, with only the vaguest, most abstract sense of what might drive a disgruntled immigrant to take up arms against his adopted homeland—and almost no sense at all of what the hell went on in the movie’s hectic, twist-heavy final act.

As the film begins, Changez Khan (the British actor and rap DJ Riz Ahmed, whose sharply tuned performance and unearthly beauty are the best reasons to see the movie) is a university professor in Lahore, Pakistan, whose star is on the rise. He’s known for his rabble-rousing lectures about Pakistani political autonomy, though he stops just short of resorting to anti-American rhetoric. After an American professor is kidnapped in Lahore, Changez agrees to sit down for an interview with an American journalist, Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), to clear his name of any association with the crime. Sitting in an obscurely menacing teahouse with Bobby—who may or may not also be, as Changez suspects, a CIA operative—Changez recounts the story of his time in the U.S., which we witness in a series of flashbacks: After getting a degree at Princeton, he worked as a financial analyst for a Wall Street firm that specialized in downsizing failing companies, under the tutelage of a cutthroat boss (Kiefer Sutherland).

On a business trip during 9/11, Changez witnesses the towers fall on his hotel TV and, to his own shock, finds himself struck above all by what he describes to Bobby as the sheer audacity of the act, the spectacle of “arrogance brought low.” In the days after the attack, Changez’s relationship to his adopted country begins to change: He’s humiliatingly strip-searched at an airport, then later held for police questioning for no other reason than walking down a New York street while being South Asian. His relationship with his girlfriend Erica, a recently widowed American photographer (an egregiously miscast Kate Hudson), becomes strained, especially when she mounts an autobiographical multimedia exhibition that makes him feel exploited and exoticized. (The audience begins to feel that Changez should break up with Erica simply for being an atrociously bad artist.)

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In the movie’s last third, Nair rushes to cram in a convoluted political espionage plot that we haven’t given a thought to since that opening kidnapping scene: Will Bobby find out the whereabouts of the missing American professor before Changez’s more radical cohorts do away with him? And are we to believe Changez’s protestations that, however close he may have come to flirting with radicalism in the past, there is still something in him that resists the use of violence?

At several points, the screenplay (by William Wheeler, from a screen story by Mohsin Hamid and Ami Boghani) goes out of its way to draw an explicit parallel between the ruthlessness of Wall Street financiers and that of Islamic terrorists. Both Changez’s toxic boss at the firm (excellently played by a shark-like Sutherland) and the Pakistani radicals who later try to convert him to their cause use the same frighteningly vague word, “fundamentals,” to describe the values that drive them. But, like Changez’s disturbing reaction to the televised destruction of the towers, this facile analogy (is financial rapaciousness, however destructive, really comparable to the slaughter of innocent people?) gets glossed over too quickly on the way to a bet-hedging and dramatically unsatisfying ending. For all the contemporary relevance of the issues it explores, there’s something morally and aesthetically muffled about The Reluctant Fundamentalist: Nair is so busy making sure we never lose sympathy for her handsome and charming protagonist that the film ultimately founders in a tangle of humanist platitudes.

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.