If there ever was a time to see “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” that time is here and now.
In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, with even President Obama asking, “Why did young men who grew up and studied here as part of our communities and our country resort to such violence?” comes a smart, provocative film that compellingly addresses these kinds of concerns.
Directed by Mira Nair from Mohsin Hamid’s exceptional novel (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize), “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” does not offer answers but rather, of equal if not greater value, it presents different ways to frame the question.
With a potent piece of fiction as its starting point and a splendid performance by Riz Ahmed as its centerpiece, “Reluctant Fundamentalist” is richer in complexities than the films we usually get. It’s able to deal with the geopolitical ramifications of the world we have made, unwittingly or not, a world where people who should be our friends may have unaccountably become our enemies.
Nair managed the difficult feat of turning Hamid’s elegant but ambivalent and elusive novel about a gifted Pakistani falling in and out of love with American capitalism into a film. She has taken what is essentially a monologue on the page and transformed it into an intricately plotted screen thriller with a conventional beginning, middle and end.
Hamid and frequent Nair collaborator Ami Boghani (who share screen story credit) worked for more than two years on what Hamid accurately calls something “inspired by” his fiction. Then screenwriter William Wheeler, responsible for the excellent Richard Gere-starring “The Hoax,” was brought into the mix. The result inevitably pushes too hard at times and can’t help but stray into melodrama, yet the film does an admirable job of transplanting the novel’s thoughtful concerns into a fast-moving suspense context.
A director whose métier is the intersection of cultures, Nair (“Monsoon Wedding,” “The Namesake” and many others) saw at once how deeply the themes of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” would resonate with her concerns. Collaborating for the sixth time with cinematographer Declan Quinn, a wizard at creating and sustaining visual atmosphere, Nair thrusts us immediately into a multifaceted story.
The tale begins in Lahore, Pakistan, in 2011 at a party where the entertainment is a sophisticated, mesmerizing form of Sufi music. No doubt aware that most Americans think of Pakistan as an uncultured hotbed of (yes) religious fundamentalism, Nair, whose father was born in Lahore, is intent on showing us the elegant side of its society.
Tensely intercut with this party scene, we see the daring off-the-street kidnapping of an American professor. Soon, a ransom note is delivered: pay money, release prisoners or the man will die.
The scene shifts to a U.S. special-ops team keeping a watch on a tea house in the old part of the city. Scheduled to meet there are two wary men who may or may not be more than they seem.
Bobby Lincoln (the always solid Liev Schreiber) is an American journalist who’s lived in Lahore long enough to pick up a taste for drugs and a fluency in Urdu. The man he has shown up to interview, Changez Khan (Ahmed) is a professor who has a reputation for being “Pakistan’s new militant academic,” a man with a palpable grudge against the U.S.
Yet the first thing Changez tells Bobby is that appearances can be deceptive. “I am a lover of America,” he says with complete sincerity, adding that for many years he was “a soldier in your economic army,” and a happy one at that. How that double transformation took place — how Changez went from Pakistani to American back to Pakistani — is what “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is all about.
The bulk of this film is necessarily a flashback, as Changez describes his down-at-the-heels aristocratic family, headed by a father (the veteran Om Puri) who is a well-known Punjabi poet and the host of the singing party that started things off.
Believing that “poems don’t buy generators,” Changez lands a spot at Princeton University. He likes America because he believes it will give him an equal chance to win, and initially that seems to be true.
Under the mentorship of Jim Cross (a strong Kiefer Sutherland), Changez becomes a golden boy at Wall Street powerhouse Underwood Samson. The firm so good at helping international companies improve their value (often by cutting their workforce) that its operatives are known as “the Navy SEALs of financial analysis.” Believing the havoc they wreak is all for the good, Changez and his colleagues are, the film suggests, economic fundamentalists of the most committed sort.
Changez is also shown making progress romantically, getting involved with Erica (Kate Hudson), a hip New York photographer who has a complicated personal history. Erica’s story has been changed and beefed up from the novel, but it is to no avail: Partly because of Hudson’s performance, the relationship section is the film’s least involving aspect.
The attacks of Sept. 11 alter everything for Changez, how his world thinks of him and, equally important, what he thinks about it. He has to decide who he is, where he stands, and what he thinks about how America conducts itself in the world and what his response should be.
Ahmed is especially good at portraying all the different facets of this increasingly complex man, a fitting centerpiece to an increasingly intricate and involving film.
‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’
MPAA rating: R for language, some violence and brief sexuality
Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes
Playing: In general release