One day Riz Ahmed will be cast in a movie that’s worthy of his talent. If American audiences know him at all, it’s likely from the last time he was saddled with a poorly sketched character. That was Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna, an adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. In Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, he’s once again at the mercy of the creaky wheels of plot contrivance.
Ahmed, who in the space of a few seconds can convey compassion and then simmering rage without uttering a word, is Changez Khan, a young man from Pakistan with a Princeton degree and a bright future as a financial analyst. Then terrorists attack the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, and his world gradually turns to pudding.
When returning to the US from a work trip in the Philippines, he’s profiled and then strip-searched, complete with a humiliating cavity inspection. He’s later arrested in midtown Manhattan when he’s mistaken by the NYPD for a ranting man spewing death threats. In other words, he’s the wrong color at the wrong time in the wrong place.
All of those instances sound like perfectly reasonable plot points in a perfectly reasonable movie about the ways in which a man may or may not turn to religious fundamentalism and, finally, terrorism. But The Reluctant Fundamentalist isn’t reasonable. It puts Changez in situations that only exist neatly in movies to hammer home a point.
What’s the point? That American foreign policy is despised in other parts of the world? That Changez has good reason to feel alienated from the United States and the American Dream? Maybe. It feels more like lazy admonishing.
When done well, there’s nothing wrong with ambiguity—moral or otherwise—in the movies. The Reluctant Fundamentalist may have scored had it remained enigmatic. In Mohsin Hamid’s book, Changez tells his story to an American who’s never named. In the movie, the American is a reporter working for the CIA (Liev Schreiber). There’s a kidnapping. There’s brouhaha. The Americans are pretty stupid.
The movie is a thriller—or it’s trying to be, unsuccessfully. What’s wrong with telling the story of a man whose motives aren’t so clear-cut?
Anyway. In order to get Changez to leave the United States and start teaching at a university in Lahore, Pakistan, where he may or may not be inciting his students to revolution, he’s given an American girlfriend, Erica (an inept Kate Hudson), who’s a photographer. They even meet cute: She’s working on a portfolio of skateboarders in Central Park, and Changez ducks when one leaps over a staircase as he’s descending it.
Changez and Erica’s relationship crumbles when she uses their fragile status—she’s recovering from losing her long-term boyfriend in a car accident shortly before Sept. 11—as the basis for an exhibit that makes Changez feel attacked. Shouting. Crying. Breaking up.
Then Changez is given the job of restructuring a publishing house in Turkey. It’s there that the publisher tells him he should be ashamed of himself and Changez realizes he is. It’s about this time when it will be clear to the audience that Changez is a passive player in his own life to whom things just happen. That’s the kind of person you want leading your narrative.
In a production this well-mounted, there are distractions from the malaise that sets in when you can see the plotting coming from a mile away. As always, Declan Quinn’s cinematography is beautiful. The music, from the score to the songs, is worthy of a soundtrack purchase. And the supporting cast, save Hudson, is excellent. Kiefer Sutherland, as Changez' American boss, uses the edge in his voice to great effect.
As for the fundamentalist himself, is he a good guy or a bad guy? The movie leaves you with no doubt, which is a shame.
THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST
Directed by Mira Nair
With Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson and Liev Schreiber