(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on May 3, 2013.)
My initial reaction to director Mira Nair’s adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist was one of spite and, truth be told, a little bit of anger. It’s very easy for an American to view this movie and be upset by it, as 99% of the Americans portrayed in this movie are painted as ugly, stupid, and ignorant; there are exactly zero sympathetic white Americans to be found in this movie. But there’s one quick, almost throwaway sequence early in this movie that attempts to disarm the viewer and explain its motif, and that has to do with our perceptions. With this scene in mind, one can almost understand the director’s intentions with this movie, and the perspective can be appreciated, but it doesn’t keep The Reluctant Fundamentalist from being a bit of a mess.
The scene in question takes place at the beginning of an interview between writer Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber) and Pakistani activist/professor Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed); Lincoln has just accused Khan of being more than an activist in his classroom. While Lincoln is speaking, we see flashbacks that color Khan as a man who seems to be promoting the use of terror and fomenting anti-Western sentiments in his students. Khan counters with his own perspective of things, which are accompanied by the same flashbacks that Lincoln had, yet with more context and a definite change in tone from the anti-American rhetoric Lincoln thinks he’s spouting. It’s as if Nair forces us to be the hardnosed, stubborn Lincoln, who shows no signs of even possibly thinking that the gentle, well-intentioned Khan could be anything else other than a recruiter for Al-Qaeda.
This is how we are meant to take the whole movie, as Khan takes us through his life as a successful foreign Harvard University student recruited by Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland) into Underwood Samson, a prestigious consulting firm on Wall Street. His rise up the corporate ladder is due to his strong business acumen, but that’s all undone by these 20 or so guys on September 11th, 2001. Not only does his life change – he’s subject to random, intrusive searches and xenophobia from everyone in his office to his girlfriend Erica (Kate Hudson) – but his take on what his life means changes as well. The title The Reluctant Fundamentalist starts to make sense as he goes back to his roots, trading the much-vaunted, idealistic “American Dream” for looking into the heart of the “Pakistani Dream.” What do the people really want, and how should they go about getting it?
After thinking about the movie and my reaction to it, I can understand the hyperbole Nair attempts. It may not be pretty, it may not show Americans in a favorable light (we all know we may not be the best neighbors at times), and I may not agree with it, but it’s understandable. However, it’s just not compelling enough to warrant a recommendation. We are stuck watching one-note characters in a relatively thin frame story – the interview between Lincoln and Khan – stemming from the kidnapping of an American professor at Khan’s school. From there, Khan uses this as a springboard to tell his almost wholly unrelated tale, and this left me scratching my head. We’re meant to believe that the clock is ticking for the kidnapped professor, yet Khan chooses to have tea and food instead of trying to help find him. Instead of helping the country which he claims to love. It seems to adopt a bit of a “take it or leave it” stance with nothing left to mull over or chew on afterward; the message of tolerance is almost lost with all the heavy anti-American leanings of this movie, which makes this movie sit at odds with itself. The Reluctant Fundamentalist uses its time to spin its wheels, with nothing gained or lost on the way. Its scattershot feel will make you shrug it off, get out of your chair, and walk out of the theater at film’s end only to forget about it hours later.