Thursday, May 2, 2013

The radicalizing of a Pakistani

It's probably impossible to discuss The Reluctant Fundamentalist -- director Mira Nair's big-screen adaptation of Mohsin Hamid's 2007 novel -- without at least mentioning the recent bombings at the Boston Marathon. I mention this because Nair's movie poses a topical and eerily relevant question: What might make a highly educated and apparently assimilated Pakistani immigrant wind up opposing everything about the U.S.?

Nair tells the story through a framing device. Changez (Riz Ahmed), a Pakistani professor, meets with a self-described American journalist (Liev Schreiber) in a Lahore cafe. Schreiber's character believes Changez may be able to help locate a kidnapped American.

We soon discover that the story is less interested in the captured American than in allowing Changez to explain how he made the journey from a hot-shot investment banker with a premier Wall Street firm to a radicalized college professor in Pakistan. Changez, we learn, not only lived in the U.S., but availed himself of its greatest opportunities. He graduated from Princeton, and quickly landed on the fast-track to wealth.

Changez tells Schreiber's Bobby the story of events that transformed him from a ruthless takeover artist to an academic who sees a link between the brutalities of capitalism and the world of religious fundamentalism.

If such a connection makes sense, The Reluctant Fundamentalist doesn't succeed in convincing us: The screenplay seems to find some sort of moral equivalence between capitalist ravishments and terrorist slaughter. The idea seems more like a fatuous reach than a devastating insight.

Having said that, it also should be noted that Ahmed gives a terrific performance as a young man learning the American ropes, which at first pull him upward and then threaten to strangle him. Ahmed's avid, intelligent performance holds the movie together, even as the story takes some less-than-credible turns.

The most notable of these unfortunate detours involves the relationship Changez establishes with a photographer named Erica, a mousey looking Kate Hudson. Erica eventually mounts an exhibit of photographs that she believes to be personal and revealing, but which mostly put her post 9/11 bigotry on display.

September 11 and the subsequent change of American attitudes give rise to prejudices that can't help but impact Changez. He's strip-searched at an airport. He's wrongly questioned by the New York City police. He begins to understand that no matter how assimilated he believes himself to be, he can't overcome the bigoted assumptions of those who identify him with terrorism.

Ahmed's fine performance is supplemented by equally strong work from Kiefer Sutherland, as Changez's boss and mentor at the investment banking firm. And it's always nice to see the fine Indian actor Om Puri, even when he's underutilized. He plays Changez's father.

Nair (Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake) keeps the story flowing. She's good at mixing milieu and character and giving material the involving sweep of a novel.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist offers some -- if not all -- of the richness of a novelistic story. But in the end, political reductionism undermines the story's human richness, and Nair manages to give us only flashes of the major work The Reluctant Fundamentalist might have been.

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