Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist
PLOT: A young Pakistani man, Changez (Riz Ahmed), leaves his family in Lahore to study business at Princeton. From there, he graduates to a large Wall Street firm, and seems to have it all, including an admiring boss (Kiefer Sutherland), a huge bank account, and a trophy girlfriend (Kate Hudson). However, after the events of 9/11, Changez’ world begins to change.
REVIEW: Mira Nair’s THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST certainly can’t be accused of not being a timely film, although I can’t honestly explain what it’s message or P.O.V is trying to be. It feels like Nair, working from the controversial book by Mohsin Hamid, is trying to shine a light on the way many citizens from Islamic countries were unfairly stereotyped in a post-911 world. Fair enough, as I had many friends from those countries (including a very good friend from Pakistan)who suffered from a lot of the same indignities the protagonist, Changez, goes through in this film. This included racist taunting, random airport screenings, you name it. I’m certain it was a difficult time for them, and a film depicting that reality had the opportunity to really be thought-provoking.
It’s too bad that in THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST, the protagonist who has to suffer these indignities is such an unknowable, shallow character right from the start. The movie unfolds through a series of flashbacks, as Changez is interviewed by a shady American journalist (Liev Schreiber) who may or may not have ties to the C.I.A. A pro-American professor has just been kidnapped in Pakistan, and Changez, who’s known for being a firebrand lecturer against the U.S is considered a prime suspect. He tries to set the record straight by telling his life-story, which is supposed to illuminate how he went from being a successful Western businessman to the “reluctant fundamentalist” of the title.
Herein lays the problem. Other than some taunting by idiotic racists and post-9/11 screening at the airport, Changez’ struggle in the U.S isn’t exactly biblical. He quickly rises to the top of his profession, where he doesn’t think twice about scuttling businesses that don’t make his company enough money, while enjoying a relationship with his boss’ sexy niece (Hudson). Despite his success, what’s Changez reaction upon seeing the World Trade Center attacked on 9/11? He smiles. How then is a man who can take any kind of pleasure in this kind of attack, and the deaths of countless innocents be considered a “reluctant” fundamentalist?
His so-called “awakening” is never really explained, and the way Nair depicts Changez’ life in the West, she makes it look like his decent into anti-U.S fundamentalism is inspired by the fact that his girlfriend, played by Hudson, is a flake. There needs to be more meat to the story if we’re supposed to at least understand Changez (his name, often mis-pronounced as “Changes” isn’t too subtle either), but in Nair’s film, we never do, right up to the cop out ending.
While narratively it’s a mess, THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST isn’t a total loss. Nair’s assembled a hell of a cast, and while Hudson seems totally miscast, the rest of the actors are terrific. Riz Ahmed is mostly known for his role in FOUR LIONS, and while Changez is a largely unlikable character, Ahmed does his very best to make him personable, even if he’s not able to make him sympathetic. Liev Schreiber, who’s saddled with a very two-dimensional part (with his big revelation happening far too early in the film), does his best to give the film some gravitas, and in a few scenes he comes pretty close to succeeding. Most impressive of all is Kiefer Sutherland, in an uncharacteristically low-key role as Changez’ closeted American boss, although his screen time is sadly limited.
THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST certainly isn’t a bad film, but it’s nowhere near as engaging or thought-provoking as it should be. I chalk the film’s failure up to a murky, unknowable protagonist, whose motivations seem born of ego and greed rather than any kind of idealism or belief. Maybe we’re not supposed to like Changez, but I feel like we should at least be able to understand how he acquired his point-of-view, but we never do.