Is he or isn't he? Countless films have been propelled by this question, whether or not the suspect character turns out to be a thief, killer or spy. In Mira Nair's didactic "political thriller," the person under suspicion is a young Pakistani professor, who may or may not be involved in the kidnapping of an American colleague. It's a timely narrative subject, but its treatment in The Reluctant Fundamentalist is fundamentally flawed.
Nair – whose previous films include Salaam Bombay! – sets up the question in the opening scene. We see the prof, Changez (Riz Ahmed) flitting around the edges of an evening concert party in Lahore, exchanging a gym bag with someone, using his cellphone – innocent acts, unless you intercut them, as Nair does, with shots of the American being forced into a car elsewhere in town.
The police and the CIA swarm into action, inflaming Changez's students and sending a shady American journalist named Bobby (Liev Schreiber) to question the professor. Changez agrees to talk only if Bobby will let him tell "the whole story" – a dread phrase that triggers a very long backstory about Changez's previous career in the U.S. We follow him as he attends Princeton, scores a job on Wall Street and a nice Manhattan apartment, and hooks up with an artist girlfriend (Kate Hudson) who turns out to be his boss's niece. At some point during this charmed but lustreless narrative, Changez morphs into the stereotype of the Good Immigrant – no, make that the Good Muslim: hard-working, secular, susceptible to American ways and values. When he sees he can squeeze more shareholder value from a Manila factory by eliminating one third of its workers, he does it without a second thought.
After the planes hit the Twin Towers, a full hour into the film, the Americans around Changez start to project the is-he-or-isn't-he question on him and everyone else with dark skin. Nair is so keen to make us see the absurdity of this paranoia that when Changez is collared outside his office and interrogated about possible terrorist links, he replies, "I love the United States of America," eyes shining with conviction and betrayal.
By this point, Nair is well into her secondary game, of challenging us to measure our own paranoid responses to Changez and the 1.6-billion other Muslims he is being obliged to represent. But she has rigged this sport in her opening scene, by explicitly setting us up to suspect the guy of dark deeds. Why should we feel guilty about the results of her editing?
In Lahore for his sister's wedding, Changez is grilled by his poet father about the chainsaw finance he's practising in the U.S. In New York, his girlfriend Erica mounts a blindingly insensitive show about the Muslim Other. With support crumbling on both sides of our hero's life, it's time for him to remake himself as the bright-eyed, quizzical academic Bobby has come to meet.
Ahmed does very well in the lead role, especially considering how much symbolic weight he has to drag around. Schreiber is convincing as Bobby, even though his alternations between suspicion and sympathy are baldly intended to trigger our own. Hudson brings a sleepy, earth-mother feeling to her role, which guarantees that nothing electric will happen between Erica and Changez. She's a plot device, not a character.
Nair has no feeling for the reality of academe or Wall Street. The scenes of Changez in his lecture room have the verisimilitude of an ad for a political campaign. Kiefer Sutherland, as Changez's Wall Street boss and mentor, tries and fails to bring life to the simple cartoon he has been asked to play. Nor does Nair have anything useful to say about the relationship of Islam to any actual terrorism. The title – shared by the Mohsin Hamid novel on which the film is based – turns out to be a cheap play on words.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is too long and too pedestrian in its language and situations. Its pacing has nothing to do with the thriller as we know it, stalling into reflection and more backstory whenever the narrative starts to heat up. At the end of its two hours, I felt more exhausted than informed, more jerked around than entertained.