In “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” a bright, Princeton-educated Pakistani man named Changez (Riz Ahmed) comes to realize that over-emphasizing the fundamental principles of any endeavor can lead to a rigid, black-and-white view of things that’s too reductive to be useful in the real world. That applies to his Muslim faith, about which he is only moderately passionate; to his work as a Wall Street analyst, where he’s a dynamo; and to his relationships. The fundamentals are important — that’s why they’re called fundamentals — but life is usually too nuanced to be boiled down to a simple “either/or” proposition.
But the film, classy and polished and aimed at grown-ups, comes dangerously close to being guilty of the same kind of facile thinking, of boiling things down to their smallest, most easily digested components. Having been loosely adapted and significantly changed from Mohsin Hamid’s novel, which by all accounts is a more complex piece of work than is indicated here, the film offers a plot that’s a little too neat, with causes and effects that are a little too pat. Still, it’s valuable as well-intentioned dramatic entertainment, even if its examination of a foreigner’s complicated feelings about America is rather superficial.
The action begins in 2011 with the kidnapping of a U.S. diplomat in Pakistan. Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), a journalist with years of experience in this part of the world, comes to the city of Lahore to interview Changez, a local university professor, about the “new militant academia” that has been causing unrest. Changez’s family has been suspected of involvement with radical causes, and in a cool, detached manner, he tells Bobby how he came to be where he is now.
From there we jump back to 2001, with a clean-shaven, eager-eyed Changez graduating from Princeton and landing a much-sought-after position with a Wall Street company. Under the tutelage of Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland), a driven, laser-focused titan of capitalism, Changez learns the ins and outs of the business and quickly rises within its ranks. Outside the office, he starts dating Erica (Kate Hudson), a photographer (and the niece of one of his bosses) who is too hung up on her deceased former boyfriend to deal with the present.
Of course, we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. Movies set in New York City in 2001 are inherently tense, and that goes double for a movie called “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” with a Pakistani Muslim as its main character. Things change for Changez after 9/11 (his name is Urdu for Genghis, by the way). At first his beardlessness shields him from the mistrust that becomes unfortunately common, but soon he starts to grow it out in solidarity — so that he WON’T be exempt from the bigotry. He recounts for Bobby how the post-9/11 humiliations and suspicions he and his fellow everyday Muslims faced made it hard not to become exactly the kind of extremists that people already assumed they were.
Riz Ahmed’s soulful lead performance is a good mix of innocence, cockiness, anger, and hurt. The central issue here — how someone who loves America can start to see where the people who hate America are coming from — is one of great import, and it’s admirable that the film tries to examine it at all. But while director Mira Nair (“The Namesake,” “Monsoon Wedding”) handles these huge issues with elegance and skill, and avoids preaching or scolding, the story is ultimately too flat to provide any real insight. Very little of the subplot with Erica rings true; it feels contrived and Hollywood-ized.
Nevertheless, the film offers 130 minutes of reasonably thoughtful, moderately engaging material dealing with some thorny issues. It may be a catalyst for intelligent conversation, which is more than you can say for most movies, even a lot of movies that are better than this one.
B- (2 hrs., 10 min.; )
Originally published at About.com.