Film review: ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’

Riz Ahmed plays a Pakistani social climber in "The Reluctant Fundamentalist." Credit: Quantrell Colbert/Reluctant Films II, Inc.
Riz Ahmed plays a Pakistani social climber in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.”
Credit: Quantrell Colbert/Reluctant Films II, Inc.

‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’
Director: Mira Nair
Stars: Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

The Indian director Mira Nair (“Salaam Bombay!,” “Monsoon Wedding”) is a sensualist and a humanist. These qualities don’t make her ideal for a political thriller, even one as light on action and absurdly heavy on backstory as “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” The material, from Mohsin Hamid’s slim novel, aims for topicality, but Nair keeps trying to pull it the other way. On the one hand, the results are maddeningly wishy-washy and unfocused; on the other, it’s always preferable when a simplistic, reductive tract gets a bit of personality to it.

Riz Ahmed, who previously essayed a wrongfully accused man in “The Road to Guantanamo” and a bumbling suicide bomber in the Chris Morris satire “Four Lions,” plays a man merely suspected of terrorism. Ahmed’s Changez is a Pakistani social climber in thrall to the American dream. Alas, his rise through Wall Street — and his fling with a trust fund “artist” (Kate Hudson) — clashes conveniently with the events of 9/11. Suddenly he’s being racially profiled, even while clad in Brooks Brothers. The feds’ shamefully sloppy work succeeds only in radicalizing Changez, who soon decamps for his homeland to talk smack about America.

The bulk of “Fundamentalist” is a massive flashback, with the now bearded and intense Changez relating his tale to a pothead journo (Liev Schreiber) in a cafe. Outside is a swelling riot as well as forces about to nab him over his alleged ties to a hostage situation — but Changez insists on plowing through his life history. “You need to know everything,” he asserts. You don’t, particularly given how ridiculously the wraparound thriller plot resolves itself.

Nair is not the filmmaker for anything remotely hot-button. She likes people too much. Every character, even an otherwise one-note caricature like Kiefer Sutherland’s robotic mega-boss, gets a moment fleshing them out. “Fundamentalist”’s trajectory is overly clean, but the characters are allowed complexities. Hudson makes an ideal unreliable girlfriend, selfish and pathetic at the right moments, while Ahmed’s Changez is a man both fiery and stubborn, as well as sometimes flat-out wrong. Characters are allowed to screw up in Nair’s films, which is refreshing, and while she has little idea how to spice up many of the office scenes — though few would — she sporadically shoehorns in gratuitously eye-pleasing montages and song performances. It’s mostly for naught, but a completely straight version of the same material, which would have historically been directed by Stanley Kramer, would be deadly.


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