“Some truths take their time,” says the eponymous fundamentalist, Changez, in Mira Nair’s new film. A financial whiz kid turned professor, Changez leaves New York for his native Pakistan after a series of personal and professional revelations in the wake of 9/11. His words, however, don’t hold true for the film itself, which, despite gestures toward narrative suspense, remains upfront about its political message.
Those familiar with Nair’s work will notice a raft of similarities between The Reluctant Fundamentalist and her 2006 film The Namesake. Both track the personal journeys of young men trapped between two cultures: the Southeast Asian traditions of their parents and the American Dream that they seek so earnestly. For both there is much anguish in being trapped in this limbo—the alienation of trying to “act white” and the guilt of abandoning their roots—but there is never a doubt for the audience that some reconciliation of identity will be reached. This is perhaps enough to achieve closure in The Namesake, but with The Reluctant Fundamentalist Nair attempts to take on the political as well as the personal, and the result is not entirely successful.
The film opens in Lahore, Pakistan, in 2011 amidst some covert activity that culminates in the kidnapping of an American professor, all shot frenetically in the style of a political thriller with quick cuts, canted angles, blurred vision, and blaring score. But The Reluctant Fundamentalist is not really a political thriller despite the American/Pakistani culture class and looming threat of violence. The narrative is surprisingly straightforward and without twists, loyal to its best-seller roots (the script is adapted by Mohsin Hamid from his 2007 novel ).
Instead, the rest of the movie essentially illustrates a conversation in a Lahore tea shop that takes place between two men: Bobby, a bedraggled expat journalist played somewhat lazily by Liev Schreiber, and Riz Ahmed’s Changez, also a professor. It is clear the Bobby is also an American spy, suspecting Changez of involvement in the kidnapping, but all of that can wait while Changez tells Bobby the story of how he went from upwardly mobile immigrant to his current role as an alleged “militant scholar.”
A series of flashbacks to Changez’s time in America show him enjoying college life at Princeton and moving on to a job at an elite financial analysis firm in New York, where he is taken under the wing of Jim Cross, a Gordon Gekko figure played with adequate sleaze and contained rage by Kiefer Sutherland. Changez climbs the ladder at the firm and enjoys the halcyon days of New York “before the fall.” As Nair constantly reminds us, Changez is living the American Dream, even starting a romance with the niece of one of his superiors. Played rather perfunctorily by the oddly cast Kate Hudson, Erica is a prominent installation artist in the clichéd depiction of the Nineties downtown art scene and happens to have a childhood sweetheart who recently died in a tragic accident. All the too-good-to-be-true-ness and the melodramatic cues contribute to the viewer’s knowledge that something very bad is going to happen.
The film’s tone changes with the events of 9/11, which turns Changez’s beloved New York into a hostile environment in which post-trauma anxiety spreads like a virus, and in which Changez becomes a victim of racial profiling and day-to-day hostility. Things fall apart at work and in his relationship with Erica as Changez begins to question his own personal, national, and political identity, and the film winds back to the “present” at the tea shop in Lahore for the denouement of the story of the kidnapped professor, which may or may not implicate Changez.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is enjoyable as a melodrama, thanks to the compelling emotional fodder of identity crisis and its setting within pre/post 9/11 New York. The perpetually relevant context acknowledges how American film and filmgoers still harbor a need to understand the trauma of the recent past and the new world it created. Both New York and Lahore are shot with an appealing vibrancy, and set to a propulsive score that blends Pakistani and Western music with atonal electronic flourishes. It all looks and sounds very bright.
But the sensorial pleasures of the film are not quite enough to make up for the fact that every scene is too heavy with the weight of Changez’s internal struggle—every moment, every line of dialogue even, reminding us that Changez is trapped between two worlds, and sooner or later will have to make a choice between them. The film seems to dance around the idea of being really critical of America—of analogizing American “exceptionalism” with Islamic fundamentalism—and instead resolves itself with an ending more befitting of a beauty pageant contestant’s speech.
One of the few things keeping this film from devolving completely into overwrought emotional chaos and cultural cliché is Ahmed’s bedrock performance as Changez. He appears in nearly every shot, maintaining throughout the film the necessary energy, authenticity, and acute expressiveness necessary to play the character on whom the entire film depends. But even his presence can’t mitigate the reliance on more than one deus ex machina and for the superficial treatment of complex themes, which the film harnesses for melodramatic ends while avoiding taking a political stance. Much like its main character, The Reluctant Fundamentalist grapples for a viable identity and ends up unsatisfied.