I can't fault what The Reluctant Fundamentalist is trying to accomplish. It's not easy trying to show immigrant experiences after what this country went through after 9/11. But for all the heart in The Reluctant Fundamentalist there are severe flaws that almost sink the film. In the end I enjoyed it, but it left me with questions wondering why this film was made in this way.
The problems start straight off with a story structure that robs the thriller of any potential thrills. Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber) is an American journalist working in Pakistan trying to get a story on the life of Changez (Riz Ahmed). Changez is under investigation as he is possibly part of a new terrorist cell trying to fill the void left by gaps in the diminishing Al-Qaeda forces in Pakistan. On the surface, Changez seems to be living a life close to the violent fringe as he teaches a class known for spreading violent rhetoric among the members of the community. But as Changez asks Bobby, we must pay attention, because putting any life into easily identifiable extremes is not the way to live.
From this point on the story is mostly told from Changez's perspective as he tells Bobby what happened to drive him from his comfortable life as an executive in America to teaching revolution back in Pakistan. But there's little shift in stylistic perspective between the present between these two men and Changez's past. Director Mira Nair has a flair for making the slightest bit of color in the dusty streets of Pakistan pop out, but that same flourish is given to most of Changez's experiences. It makes me wonder what use the framing device really is for if there's nothing that separates the visual experience of the past from the presence.
It gets worse as we go through routines for both the thriller and romantic parts of the film. The parts where Changez is shadowed or threatened are punctuated by a dark score of electronic droning that underscores too much of the thriller aspects of the film. I understand why Changez would be sharing this part of his life with Bobby, but the detours into Changez's romantic life put a halt to both the narrative as the film develops and call into question the framing device yet again. Why would Changez be spending so much time telling Bobby about his romance when his life is in danger? Worse still, these moments are hampered by a very poor performance by Kate Hudson, chomping her way through tear-soaked scenes as though she is dead-set to prove her work in Almost Famous wasn't a fluke.
But as poor as these moments are, they also shine some insight into Changez's condition and why the movie works so well when it hits a high. Throughout the film we are never put into doubt Changez's status as an other in America. A subtle point made throughout the film is that Changez started as a token prop for people who eventually realized he could be more. One powerful reversal finds a repeated line, "Just pretend I'm him", show how little regard for him changed before and after the attacks. The degradation was always there, it just became more hostile.
As Changez, Riz Ahmed is an excellent guide through the myriad of scenes that see his status change every second. He's a strong presence, never allowing his emotions to sway fully in one direction or the other. As a result he becomes the perfect representation of the mercurial identity his otherness forces upon him in America. Were he any weaker he would have been broken, either by his corporate masters or his fellow countrymen. Kiefer Sutherland also turns in some excellent work as his boss, whose growling exterior serves as a way to ward people off from discovering his own secret.
Changez is unwilling to go through his life living with that kind of a shield. Nair's best scenes display this beautifully in scenes that embrace Changez's Pakistani roots in response to American pressure. In the beginning we wee a rapturous celebration of music and food scored by a powerful duet of traditional Pakistani music. By the end, a somber but defiant people who will not cow themselves in their grief to anyone else's way of life.
Had Nair's film thrown off the romantic and thriller baggage it could have been something very special. It's expressed messily, but The Reluctant Fundamentalist stands as tall and proud as Changez, asking that we please try to look through the eyes of others and see the love they are still capable of.
Directed by Mira Nair.
Screenplay written by Mohsin Hamid and Ami Boghani.
Starring Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, and Liev Schreiber.