Is it paranoia to believe that religious extremists, including Islamic extremists, walk among us every day? Or, in the wake of events like the Boston Marathon bombing – accompanied by the still-unraveling backstories of its perpetrators – is it just good common sense to accept that radical acts of evil might happen anytime, anywhere?
We can’t expect Mira Nair’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” adapted from Mohsin Hamid’s novel, to answer those unanswerable questions. But the timing of the movie’s appearance on the scene counts for something: This is the story of a young Pakistani man, Changez – played by the almost alarmingly charismatic Riz Ahmed – who claims to love the United States and (almost) everything it stands for. Yet an American journalist and spy, Bobby (Liev Schreiber), suspects that Changez may have masterminded the kidnaping of an American professor from a university in Lahore. Changez tells Bobby his story, revealing it in a series of flashbacks. Should Bobby trust the tale and the teller, or neither?
Even if you haven’t read Hamid’s novel, it’s pretty clear from the start where “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is going to lead. But in getting there, Nair opens up some compelling questions, even if she isn’t always so surefooted in dramatizing them. This is a thriller, and Nair works hard to make it thrilling, with uneven results. There are too many moments when it’s nearly impossible to buy either the characters’ actions or their feelings.
But Nair does have a powerful ally in her star, Ahmed, who has previously appeared in “Trishna,” Michael Winterbottom’s jagged, emphatic reimagining of “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” as well as the wobbly jihadist comedy “Four Lions.” Ahmed plays two characters here, rolled into one human being: There’s the Changez who comes to America as a young man, attending Princeton and assimilating so well that he’s hired by a scrappy little Wall Street firm (his boss is a wily Cheshire Cat played by Kiefer Sutherland) and lands an artsy-rich American girlfriend (played by a not-so-kittenish Kate Hudson). And then there’s the Changez who, disoriented and disillusioned by the way Americans treat him after 9/11, returns to Pakistan to teach at a university there, intentionally or otherwise instilling revolutionary ideas in his students.
The Americanized Changez speaks in loose-limbed U.S. English; back at home, in Pakistan, his diction is clipped and formal, the stiff language of pamphlets and slogans. Ahmed plays the character so we feel immediately comfortable with his U.S. incarnation and instantly wary of the more spiritually rigid Pakistani who has returned to his homeland. Still, both versions of the character are seductive, and that’s what gives the movie its crackle. Like Bobby, we want to trust Changez, but we’re not sure we dare to.
Ahmed is so good that it’s a shame Nair can’t always adequately control the story around him. Changez’s Wall Street job involves evaluating companies’ worth and then finding ways to increase it, which generally involves cutting employees. In one scene, he coldly faces a group of average Middle Americans, trying to make them see how logical it is that their jobs should be eliminated. Later, when he’s confronted in the parking lot by one of these disgruntled workers, the moment is framed as jingoistic -- a racist attack, a good reason for Ahmed to feel uncomfortable in his adopted home. Nair and her screenwriters (Hamid, Ami Boghani and William Wheeler collaborated on the script) don’t allow for the fact that, old-fashioned racism aside, this guy has plenty of cause to be angry with Changez. The sequence is ham-fisted, when what it demands is the utmost delicacy. “How dare this guy come to our country to fire me!” is a very different emotion from “He’s dark-skinned, he’s from over there, so he probably hates America and Americans.” Nair blurs the line carelessly, to the point that we don’t feel as much sympathy for Changez as perhaps we should.
Although “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” raises some complicated questions, in the end, it doesn’t challenge that much – the picture adequately and efficiently grooms to see Changez’s story from many angles, so we can emerge from it feeling reasonable and self-congratulatory. Yet Ahmed’s performance has enough mystery embedded that sometimes he succeeds in making us wonder if he is the willing servant of a vengeful God. It’s the single discomfiting element of a movie that’s otherwise just too reassuring.
SCORE: 6.0 / 10