I think The Reluctant Fundamentalist has a genuinely noble purpose. It looks at an encounter between an American and a Pakistani Muslim, in circumstances where the former is ready and willing to shove the latter into the box of “terrorist sympathizing militant.” It then breaks down how defensible motivations and understandable choices on all sides have nonetheless led to a catastrophic impasse. The problem is that the movie just doesn’t quite click.
Director Mira Nair and her fellow filmmakers construct their story in the framework of a cross-cutting flashback. Changez (Riz Ahmed) is a Muslim who teaches at a university in his home country of Pakistan. He’s known for firebrand speeches and opposition to much of America’s international policy, both military and economic. Bobby (Live Schreiber) is the American journalist who is interviewing him. They sit down at a cafe and begin to go through Changez’s backstory, as a building student protest and the shadowy threat of an American intelligence team swirl through the town around them.
Ten years earlier, Changez was a bright-eyed and well-groomed Pakistani immigrant. He’d just landed a job at a high-powered Wall Street firm, under the wing of his boss Jim (Kiefer Sutherland). He wows his colleagues, and also sparks a relationship with Erica (Kate Hudson) who – in a nice change from the usual derivative “manic pixie dream girl” script – is just a straight-forward creative photographer type with an enjoyable personality, but also a few genuine emotional problems.
Then September 11th happens. Changez is detained at the airport after an international flight. His workplace is creeped out by his beard. Cops harass him on the street. Slowly but surely, Changez feels his adopted culture turn on him, and begins to re-engaged with his Pakistani roots in reaction.
This examination of loyalty between an individual and a culture, and the way herd mentality and tribalism can still dominate even in the interconnected 21st Century, is the best aspect of the film. If you felt a momentary thrill at seeing the Twin Towers go down, does that make you sick? Or does that just mean you’re aware of how the World Trade Center could operate as a symbol of arrogant, culture-crushing power as much as one of American pride and values? If you return to your religious and cultural roots after being strip searched and feeling the sideways glances of your neighbors, is that radicalism or just an effort at psychological protection? When your girlfriend tries to make sense of the cultural gap between the two of you with an outlandish art installation, is that exploitation, xenophobia, or just her unusual way of processing matters? Just how much can you really expect one person to reject another for their violent millitancy, when the two share so many cultural roots and similar grievances with their American neighbor?
It’s to The Reluctant Fundamentalist’s credit that Changez is not a pure martyr in this. He can be dunder-headed and stand-offish, and clearly enjoys tweaking Bobby’s confusion over what to make of him. He can also be spectacularly cruel to Erica.
On the other hand, the way he and America fall apart is poignant and recognizably human, bearing all the signs of romantic disillusionment. The filmmakers also recognize the economic dimension of all this: A big part of Changez’s reckoning is his mounting horror at global capitalism’s tendency to uproot and consume local communities, and his own culpability in that as a Wall Street flack. At one point, Changez’s father Abu (Om Puri) gives a speech on the destructive otherworldliness of the financial industry that could’ve come out of the mouth of any midwestern union member.
So why doesn’t The Reluctant Fundamentalist work? A big part of the problem is Ahmed as the main character. He’s not bad, per se. But given how critical his role is to the arc of the story, the actor fails to engage the audience emotionally. He’s serviceable, but more of a cipher than a character, and not in a good way.
The structure of the film is also rote. I felt like I was ahead of it the whole time, watching both the fall out of 9/11 for Changez personally and the approaching crisis between Changez and Bobby. The filmmakers seem to be on autopilot, checking off the boxes while using the flashback gimmick to shoehorn a sense of hyper-realized drama into the proceedings. The unfolding, while substantive as an intellectual exercise, isn’t organic or emotionally vibrant. I suppose it’s worth asking whether someone who – unlike myself – wasn’t already sympathetic to the film’s thesis might be constructively challenged by it. At the end of the day, though, I just wasn’t moved.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7SQs2Y8drP8