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The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Posted by martinteller on May 13, 2013

As a young man, Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed) came to New York from Pakistan to find the American dream.  Top of his class at Princeton, he lands a highly coveted financial analyst job, having made an impression on the director, Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland).  Soon Changez is valuating companies’ worth and coming up with cost-cutting measures to make them more profitable… i.e., eliminating huge numbers of employees.  Although his artist girlfriend, Erica (Kate Hudson), can’t get past the death of her previous beau, they enjoy a mutually satisfying relationship.  Then the American dream starts to sour for Changez.  Racial profiling in a post-9/11 world makes him a target.  He feels misunderstood by and frustrated with Erica, who he sees as using him for cultural bonus points.  And he grows disillusioned with the work he’s doing.  He returns to Pakistan and starts teaching at Lahore University.  When a fellow professor, an American, is captured by terrorists, Changez is once again a target of suspicion.  He has a lengthy conversation with a journalist (Liev Schreiber), one of many who believes that Changez knows where the American is being held.  The film is set in a Lahore café as Changez tells the story explaining who he is and how he got to be who he is in flashback, while the CIA tries to find the missing professor.

I have to say, this is the weakest feature I’ve seen by Mira Nair.  From what I’ve seen, it’s been a steady decline since her first fictional feature, Salaam Bombay.  It’s not this is a bad movie.  It isn’t.  But it is too blunt, too obvious.  There’s very much a “preaching to the choir” quality to it.  I saw potential in the idea of comparing “fundamentalist” capitalism to fundamentalist religious terrorism, but it’s all stated so plainly that it doesn’t leave the viewer much to chew on.  Who’s really going to disagree that ruthless corporate layoffs are bad?  Or that racial profiling is bad?  Or that sacrificing innocents is bad?  Nair tries to make a nuanced film that doesn’t paint people as black or white (“Looks can be deceiving” is a repeated motif) but it’s all either too scattershot or too didactic.

One moment really stood out to me.  When Changez relates his feelings about 9/11, he says that before the shock and sorrow set in, his first reaction was one of awe, of feeling impressed that someone did something so massive.  This is a bold thing to come out of a protagonist’s mouth.  It’s a sentiment I haven’t seen expressed before, in a movie or anywhere else I can think of.  And I remembered that my first reaction was “Wow, this is huge and crazy” before the awful reality of it sank in.  More surprises like that would have been welcome.  Unfortunately, little about the film is surprising at all.  Most of it plays out in very predictable fashion.  Thus the film felt very long to me, as it was pretty much exactly what I expected it to be.

Ahmed is quite good, though.  He’s also a rapper (“Riz MC”) and has previously shown off his chops in Michael Winterbottom’s provocative The Road to Guantanamo and the uncomfortably hilarious (hilariously uncomfortable?) satire Four Lions.  Here the weight of the film is on his shoulders, and he handles it admirably, even having to deliver some pretty ham-fisted lines.  Sutherland is basically a caricature, although not without some entertaining bits of personality.  Schreiber doesn’t do anything that compelling.  Hudson is a drag, partly because her character is paper thin but also because her delivery feels amateurish.  On a technical level, the cinematography is just fine, and the music is quite nice, although a lot of the lyrics (subtitled) are — much like the rest of the film — too on-the-nose.

If this sounds like a lot of complaining, I guess it is, but I would classify the movie as “okay”.  Its heart is certainly in the right place, and I appreciate that Nair is trying to present some alternate viewpoints.  But mostly it comes off as wasted potential.  There are good ideas here, but they’re lost in an execution that’s too crammed with different themes and too transparent.  Rating: Fair (61)


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