Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist would like to be a novel. In fact, it once was a novel. The film is based on Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 best-seller, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and is already being taught in freshman English classes. It’s understandable that Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler would want to preserve the spirit of the original text as best they can. Unfortunately, the result of their work isn’t a film. At best it’s a two-hour mid-season episode of a network terrorism drama, and at worst it’s a cacophony of brutally simplified metaphors spat onto the silver screen.
Wheeler’s script has big, big ideas. At its center is Changez, played by rising star Riz Ahmed, whose skilled performance is really the only exciting thing about the film. He’s a college professor in Lahore, suspected by the CIA of having ties to a local terrorist organization. A Western academic, a colleague, has just been kidnapped and the city is about to erupt in a panicked violence. Yet Changez is calmly sitting in a tea house across from Bobby, an American journalist (Liev Schreiber). To call the tension palpable would be an understatement – riding on this single conversation is the weight of the entire world.
We dive into flashback, learning that Changez was not always a firebrand college professor teaching big ideas in Pakistan. He was raised by an internationally known Urdu poet and sent to the United States for school, Princeton specifically. Changez loves the U.S., and “God bless its level playing fields.” He ends up recruited by an enormously successful financial firm in New York, under the wing of upper-management big-shot Kiefer Sutherland. He meets a beautiful photographer named Erica (Kate Hudson) in Central Park, who turns out to be the niece of his firm’s head honcho. They fall in love, because Changez loves America and that needs a physical incarnation.
The narrative of his ascension to the heights of international finance is, as such, overflowing with cliché dialogue and shallow characters. Sutherland’s performance is dreadfully bland, but even a better actor would have floundered here. The problem is that only Changez himself is a fully realized individual. Sutherland is playing a symbol of the financial industry. Eric, through her art and her relationship with Changez, represents the entirety of America’s sexual and emotional appeal. Bobby stands in for the ethical quandary of the American journalist after 9/11. Symbolism on this grand of a scale works on the page, where the characters can be more abstract. Here, the whole thing is completely flat.
Changez’s rise through the ranks falters in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center. His success professionally is all but certain, but the discrimination he experiences from both law enforcement and his co-workers begins to reach a head. The bitter end finally comes when his relationship explodes, in a confrontation that signifies the greatest of spiritual, political and psychological conflicts. Hudson, despite her best efforts, cannot stand under the weight of a metaphor for the entirety of the post-9/11 world. The result is an absurdity that breaks The Reluctant Fundamentalist’s veneer of seriousness once and for all, cutting off its power before it even gets to make its ultimate point.
In the end, after all, this is all about “fundamentalism.” Changez is caught between the firebrands of Pakistan and the “fundamentals” of Wall Street, both points of view devoid of sympathy and room for disagreement. Both of them ruin lives, the world round. This is the central point of the narrative, the reason for all of its characters and the revelation to which every one of its hackneyed observations points. If the supporting characters, the competing influences on Changez’s fate, were less bluntly written (and occasionally terribly acted as well), perhaps this would pack a punch. I’m sure it works in the novel, where there is more space to breathe. As it is, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is Nair and Wheeler’s disastrous attempt to toss a book onto the big screen. If only they had just attempted to make a movie.
The Upside: Riz Ahmed steals the show, in a way that hopefully leads him to other, better work.
The Downside: Everything else is misguided and bland. Everything.
On the Side: Ahmed is also a rapper, and his 2006 debut single “Post-9/11 Blues” was banned from the airwaves at first due to its controversial lyrics.