Mira Nair’s latest film, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” based on the book with the same title by Mohsin Hamid, is a political thriller that takes a piece of history, blends it with fiction and views it from a unique perspective. Unlike more commercially marketed and big-budget movies like “Argo,” this film attempts to take a more universal outlook on U.S.-Middle Eastern relations. As exciting as the idea sounds, “Reluctant” falls short of reaching its mark.
The story centers on a young, intelligent Pakistani college professor named Changez (Riz Ahmed), who teaches in the city of Lahore, Pakistan. The CIA suspects Changez of being involved with the abduction of an American colleague. While the investigation is underway, Changez reminisces about his time working at a consultancy firm after graduating from Princeton University. At the firm, he was taken under the wing of his boss Jim (Kiefer Sutherland) and falls in love with an American photographer, Erica (Kate Hudson). It is only when the effects of a post-9/11 world hit New York that Changez’s positive outlook on the United States and his prosperity begin to fade.
Nair finds some brief moments of poignancy in elements like Changez’s radical yet understandable viewpoints and his dysfunctional romance with Erica. These moments are lost, however, in what often turns into political preaching and emotional manipulation through boisterous scores and hyperbolic dialogue, which makes the more profound, authentic moments harder to appreciate.
It is also refreshing to see a Middle Eastern character as a likeable protagonist, working as a strong leader in the United States. But, as the plot progresses, the film expects us to love him one minute and hate him the next, all in such a short period of time that it alienates the viewer. While Nair’s strategy is justifiable, the film has a difficult time translating the original novel’s bigger philosophical ideas to the screen — all while maintaining its emotional vigor.
“Reluctant” would have benefitted greatly if Nair had honed in on a particular genre. Overall, the film tries to take on too many facets and feels just as lost and reluctant as Changez.
Despite its major issues, there are moments when the film shines with onscreen verisimilitude, thought-provoking elements and engaging cinematography. Ahmed shows great potential as a future talent, and Sutherland, with the exception of some weak dialogue, steals the show every time he is present.
Ahmed plays a believably conflicted character, but much of his performance is drowned in a fundamentally flawed screenplay. The film’s ideas have the potential to strike up a lot of conversation based on their controversial, sympathetic outlook on anti-American, Middle Eastern attitudes. It would be great to see this explored again in the future but hopefully with a better execution and script.
A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, April 24 print edition. David Leidy is a contributing writer. Email him at [email protected].