The main character in The Reluctant Fundamentalist flashes a brief smile while watching the Twin Towers collapse on Sept. 11, 2001.
It’s a brash bit of theater, particularly in a film asking us to question whether the character has become radicalized by his time spent in America.
The more troubling elements in director Mira Nair’s film, based on Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 book of the same name, give audiences reason to support that smile. After all, American-styled capitalists are essentially the same as radical Islamists who behead those with whom they disagree, right?
So sayeth The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which marries that repugnant meme with enough clumsy plot contrivances to tarnish an already foul conceit. The film is hardly reluctant in its full-throttled assault on the West, ignoring its many noble elements in favor of vapid demonizations.
The story, which starts in 2011, begins with promise all the same. Nair expertly splices the kidnapping of an American professor in Pakistan with a family celebration complete with full-throated songs. Young Changez Khan (an effective Riz Ahmed) is torn between joining his Pakistani family at the party and playing a murky role in the professor’s disappearance.
Flash back to a few months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and we see Changez joining an elite Wall Street firm in America. He’s a rising star, something that doesn’t escape the notice of his sharp-eyed boss (Kiefer Sutherland). Changez even meets a groovy photographer (Kate Hudson), the pieces of his American dream snapping into place at record speed.
All is not well in Changez’s immigrant blueprint. His girlfriend is still mourning the loss of her late beau and his job requires him to shut down under-performing companies with honorable ties. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks soon rock his new home, turning New York City into a cauldron of xenophobia.
Once those Towers fall, The Reluctant Fundamentalist casts aside solid storytelling in favor of hackneyed devices designed to alienate Changez from America–and then some.
The Pakistani immigrant is hassled by airport security, spat on by a fired worker who calls him Osama and arrested for simply being near a mentally ill man on the streets. Each episode is convoluted to the core, and by the time Hudson’s character unveils a deeply personal art project without giving him a clue as to its contents it’s clear the ideological fix is in.
Was that all enough to make him an enemy of the U.S., one ready to take up arms against the empire? By the time the frantic third act begins we don’t care.
Changez tells his story to an American journalist (Liev Schreiber), a narrative structure that allows for some semblance of mystery. Said journalist harbors a secret, the kind that matches the rest of the hard-to-believe story pivots.
The film’s romance starts with a meet cute moment but never builds to a believable crescendo. Hudson isn’t the first, second or sixth best choice to play Changez’s lover, but what actress could overcome the thin screenplay?
Changez arrives at a prestigious Wall Street company fully believing in what he can accomplish in the U.S.
“In America I get an equal chance to win,” Changez says early in the film. The Reluctant Fundamentalist soon casts aside that notion for the kind of anti-American rhetoric MSNBC might discount as extreme.
There’s dramatic potential in a Middle Eastern man torn between home, family and western values he cannot fully embrace. He might question America’s influence in his part of the world, or wonder if a bracing War on Terror is the best way to establish global piece and security.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist ignores these shades of gray, preferring to paint in streaks so strident they leave little room for moral clarity.