Directed by: Mira Nair.
Written by: Ami Boghani & Mohsin Hamid & William Wheeler based on the novel by Hamid.
Starring: Riz Ahmed (Changez), Kate Hudson (Erica), Liev Schreiber (Bobby Lincoln), Kiefer Sutherland (Jim Cross), Om Puri (Abu), Shabana Azmi (Ammi), Martin Donovan (Ludlow Cooper), Nelsan Ellis (Wainwright), Haluk Bilginer (Nazmi Kemal), Meesha Shafi (Bina), Imaaduddin Shah (Sameer), Christopher Nicholas Smith (Mike Rizzo), Ashwath Bhatt (Junaid), Sarah Quinn (Clea), Chandrachur Singh (Bandy Uncle), Adil Hussain (Mustafa Fazil), Ali Sethi (Ahmed), Deepti Datt (Amreh), Gary Richardson (Anse Rainier).
At the center of Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist there is a wonderful story of a young man from Pakistan who comes to America for his part of the American dream, and in the aftermath of 9/11 grows disillusioned with everything he thought he wanted. That right there is a great story. The problem with the movie itself is that it wraps itself as a thriller with a needless framing device and story about a kidnapped American, who they must find soon or else he’ll be killed. The movie doesn’t need any of that – it’s just a distraction, but it’s a big distraction – one that pretty much sinks the movie.
That is unfortunate, because the movie basically wastes an excellent performance by Riz Ahmed in the lead role of Changez. Changez grew up the son of a famous poet in Pakistan – his is a good family, and yet they are still broke. He goes to America for University, where he excels, and then gets a job on Wall Street. In a room full of brilliant, young go-getters, Changez is the smartest and most ambitious of them all. His boss, Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland) takes him under his wing – and he seems to be on the fast track to success. He even meets and falls in love with a beautiful American, Erica (Kate Hudson). On the day he gets the best news of his life – that he will become the youngest Associate in his firm’s history, he turns on the TV and watches 9/11 play out before his eyes. After that, things change for the worse. His adopted country looks at him with nothing but suspicion – and his home country does much the same thing – and Changez is caught not quite knowing what to do.
This should be more than enough plot for one movie. But instead of just making a character study of life for a Muslim immigrant in pre and post 9/11 America, the film feels the need to add a thriller framing device. 10 years after 9/11, where Changez is now a University Professor in Pakistan, an American journalist – Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber) finally gets an interview with him. Lincoln thinks Changez is the poster child for “new radical intellectuals” in Pakistan – and given that an American born professor at the same University has been kidnapped, he thinks Changez may know something about it. And then the CIA gets involved, and the whole thing pretty much turns into one of those ticking clock movies, but without an actual ticking clock.
There are other problems in the movie – mostly in the casting. Perhaps because he is TV’s most famous anti-terrorist expert, Nair thought that casting Sutherland in a completely non-Jack Bauer-ish role would be interesting in that it subverts our expectations of him. Cross is perhaps the most sympathetic of all the American characters – he never looks at Changez differently after 9/11, and even when he gets angry with him, it is justified – he did put his neck on the line for him after all, only to have it thrown in his face. It has nothing to do with Changez being Muslim. Yet Sutherland is not the most nuanced of actors, so other than wearing ridiculous glasses, he never seems natural in the role. Perhaps worse is Kate Hudson as Erica, who is a complicated character, who ends up doing something that (in my mind anyway) is rather abhorrent – but Hudson cannot pull off this character rife with contradictions. Even when she is supposedly Changez’s dream girl, there is something off about her.
But Ahmed’s performance would have more than made up for those flaws. He was good in the under seen, terrorist comedy Four Lions a few years ago, but was given an impossible role to play last year in Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna, where he was stuck playing an amalgamation of the two men in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles – a role that made him seem schizophrenic. Yet here, he plays Changez – flaws, contradictions and all – and turns in a wonderful performance. He anchors the film, and never ceases to hold the screen. He drew me into the movie, even though the film itself is more frustrating than engrossing.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is still at least an interesting movie. But it’s a frustrating one because had the movie tried to do less, it could have been so much more. Perhaps the only way Nair could get funding for a movie of this nature was to make a thriller – and if that’s the case, than that’s said. Because there is so much here to admire, but the film is sunk by the rest of the crap the movie throws in.