Mohsin Hamid’s slender, gemlike novel about a young Pakistani man’s post-9/11 identity crisis receives illuminating but heavy-handed screen treatment in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” Despite a fine central performance by Riz Ahmed, a strong feel for cultural conflict and a lively evocation of contempo Lahore, Mira Nair’s latest immigrant saga saddles itself with a laborious narrative structure and half-baked thriller elements in a misguided attempt to open up what should be an intimate, introspective story. Combo of literary prestige and exotic appeal should give the picture a shot with arthouse audiences willing to prevail past that mouthful of a title.
Adapted by William Wheeler (with Mohsin and Ami Boghani receiving story credit), the novel took the form of a first-person account by Changez Khan, now back in his native Lahore after having spent a number of years in New York. Addressing an anonymous American interviewer, Changez recounts his rise from Ivy League darling to Wall Street analyst, as well as his love for a beautiful but troubled woman, their brief affair serving as a blunt metaphor for his rapidly evolving relationship with America itself in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Following an opening credits sequence that rather too showily pushes the sights and sounds of present-day Lahore in the viewer’s face, the film initially seems to follow the novel’s compact setup, as Changez (Ahmed), now a professor, sits down for tea with a journalist, Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber). But as suspicious questions develop concerning both men’s identities — is Changez a dangerous Muslim radical? Is Lincoln an undercover CIA operative? — and various paranoia-stirring subplots emerge involving a kidnapped American academic and a radicalized local student body, the framing device becomes its own unwieldy and unconvincing narrative.
Resulting hodgepodge distracts from the long flashback at the story’s core, which slowly reveals young Changez’s fleeting intoxication and growing disillusionment with the American Dream. One of a handful of Princeton grads selected to work at an elite New York valuation firm, Changez thrives under the care of his tough-love mentor (a dryly effective Kiefer Sutherland) and eventually becomes the company’s youngest associate. He falls for a dark-haired photographer-artiste type, Erica (Kate Hudson), by turns feisty and weepy as she continues to carry a torch for a b.f. she lost several months ago. More of a cliche than an actual character, Erica represents a too-convenient symbol of a nation that superficially opens her arms to Changez but ultimately rejects him once 9/11 hits.
As she demonstrated in films like “Mississippi Masala” and “The Namesake,” Nair has a gift for revealing the challenges and contradictions of the American minority experience, a talent that serves her well in a number of scenes here despite the often glib, self-consciously snappy quality of the writing. Conflict comes from within as well as without, as Changez finds himself the victim of racial profiling in the U.S. and something of a black sheep back in Pakistan, where his poet father (Om Puri) scorns him for succumbing to the easy lure of global capitalism and other Western values.
Providing a huge assist is British Pakistani thesp Ahmed (“Four Lions,” “The Road to Guantanamo”), who makes Changez an admirably empathetic, thorny and conflicted protagonist, truly a man without a country. The boldest stroke in both the novel and the film is Changez’s chilling acknowledgment, as a Pakistani national, of his momentary satisfaction with the events of 9/11 and the David-vs.-Goliath blow it represented. It’s an honest, confessional moment that the film subsequently ruins by turning the mystery of Changez’s possible terrorist leanings into a moral bait-and-switch. “Looks can be deceiving,” Changez tells Lincoln early on, a truism that gets pounded home with neither subtlety nor suspense in the film’s action-packed but ineffectual closing reels.
Hudson looks earthier and dowdier than usual, in line with a role more serious than her recent romantic-comedy turns, and she effectively registers the tempestuous moods and emotions required by the film’s soapiest passages. For his part, Schreiber is limited by a role expanded considerably from the source material but not fleshed out sufficiently to make the gun-toting Lincoln a worthy opponent or ally to Changez.
As usual with Nair’s work, the music is vibrant, flowing and ever-present, blending Michael Andrews’ funk-based score with traditional Pakistani Qawwali tunes and a number of Urdu poems recited in song. Intentionally or not, Declan Quinn’s widescreen lensing imposes an unmistakable moral reading on the story, contrasting the warm, enveloping hues of Lahore with the soulless corporate interiors of New York. Shimit Amin’s editing is reasonably fluid and coherent despite the story’s insistent jumpiness across time and space, as business trips to the Philippines and Turkey play significant roles in Changez’s personal journey.