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
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
Santa Fe Reporter