There's a double meaning to the title of "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," filmmaker Mira Nair's gripping and complex drama based on the 2007 novel by Mohsin Hamid on the roots of extremism, opening today at the Tower.
On a superficial level, "fundamentalist" refers to religious identity, one unfortunately most often associated with Islamic terrorism these days. And the story about an ambitious, Pakistani-born Wall Street financial analyst who becomes disenchanted with the United States after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 certainly suggests that most obvious reading. In that interpretation, the reluctant fundamentalist is an assimilated Muslim forced into anti-American radicalism by America itself.
But the hero Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed), whom we meet at the outset as an older and wiser professor of revolutionary studies at Lahore University, isn't quite what he appears. The other meaning of "fundamentalist" refers to Changez's prior life in the States, where, as a young man, he was paid big bucks to fix broken companies, coolly evaluating and, if necessary, streamlining a business's "fundamentals." That means he was often in the position of having to fire people, a job that might inspire reluctance in anyone with a heart. (The name Changez Khan is a variant of Genghis Khan.)
So, does the ambivalence of the title refer to the ruthless Western capitalist or to the idealistic yet puritanical Pakistani? The answer, with several even more fascinating questions, percolates over the course of a single extended conversation.
As adapted by screenwriter William Wheeler, Hamid's tale is structured around an interview with Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), a journalist who suspects Changez of involvement in the abduction of an American academic (Gary Richardson) in Lahore. By way of answering Bobby's questions, Changez insists on telling his story from the beginning, flashing back to his time in New York.
It's an an engrossing story, bracingly told, and it begins, like many immigrant sagas, with the American Dream: a great job, a beautiful girlfriend (Kate Hudson) and unlimited prospects. But Changez's dream begins to turn into a nightmare after Sept. 11, when the bearded, dark-skinned man with the exotic accent is, for the first time, subjected to suspicion and profiling because of bigotry.
It would be easy for the film to rely on shorthand bullying begets bullying but Wheeler's screenplay takes its time, allowing the nuances of Changez's transformation to reveal themselves organically. Ahmed delivers a riveting performance, making his character's metamorphosis not just credible, but sympathetic.
Hudson is equally good as Changez's artist sweetheart, a woman with a fascinating backstory of her own.
And let's not forget Bobby. The reporter has a a lot to do with the story. There's more than meets the eye to this character, and Schreiber brings a three-dimensional fullness to the role.
Although there are times when the movie drags a bit because of all the flashbacks, it mostly maintains a steady forward momentum, chugging toward its exciting, volatile climax.
"The Reluctant Fundamentalist" will likely make some people mad because of the way it holds the United States responsible for the repercussions of its actions in the world. But there's the belief that America, and Americans, can do better.
THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST
Three 1/2 stars
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber, Kiefer Sutherland. In English and Urdu with subtitles.
Director: Mira Nair
Rated R (Contains obscenity, brief sexuality and violence).