In the political thriller The Reluctant Fundamentalist, director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake, Salaam Bombay) tries her hardest to make something out of a mystery where the secrets that are so central to the story simply aren’t that interesting or gripping. It’s a film with a great set up full of interesting backstory, but the main reason for the film existing in the first place feels tacked on and out of place. It’s a similar problem that Nair had with her last major film – the biopic Amelia – and while she continues to step outside her comfort zone as a filmmaker, it’s becoming apparent that she’s much better with characters than creating sprawling and epic stories surrounding them.
Based on the novel by Moshin Hamid, the film tells the decade spanning story of the life of Changez (Riz Ahmed) starting in 2001. It’s a story that he relates to an embedded American reporter (Liev Schreiber) in a Pakistani restaurant with a brewing student rebellion about to explode outside the doors and the American government ready to rush inside and take him down for potentially being connected to the kidnapping of an anti-Jihadist professor.
It wasn’t always this way. In 2001, he was making his way as a high finance consultant in New York. He’s about to become the youngest partner in the history of his firm. His boss (Kiefer Sutherland) sees him as the golden boy, and he’s happily dating an attractive photographer (Kate Hudson). Everything seems to be going fine, but the combination of familial stress and pride runs afoul of post-9/11 profiling and ill feelings, leading Changez down a dark and potentially dangerous road.
The film rises and falls on the immense talent of Ahmed, who single-handedly elevates the film even when the story seems to be letting him down. He plays Changez long term arc for maximum payoff and is just as believable as a young money, Americanized idealist as he is a jaded and cynical professor teaching a job derided by most of his colleagues after burning out in the States. The more information we get about his life, the more sympathetic the audience potentially gets until moments arise where he might be overreacting. It’s difficult to convey a rational man getting gradually bent out of shape, but Ahmed does it within a very large sandbox to play in.
The rest of the cast is fine, but their roles are stunted and underdeveloped and each of them only house singular traits and purposes without ever coming to life. It’s not their story, but it just highlights how much the film belongs to Ahmed’s performance and less so to everyone else involved.
The thematic material isn’t problematic in a political sense, but in a narrative one. The concept of Changez originally being a consultant who makes cuts for a living being forced to realize the worth of his own family is far more interesting than the obvious and deadened terrorist potboiler at the centre of it all. The film’s time shifting structure doesn’t really add any shock value, and the wrap-around involving a potential military strike against Changez seems curiously dragged out by a financier who wanted more action and less talking.
What ultimately makes The Reluctant Fundamentalist so hard to swallow in the end is just how predictable and rote it ends up being. There are twists and character allegiances that are constantly shifting, but none that can’t really be seen coming from far off. It’s not a very mysterious story, and there’s nothing that the talented Nair can do to disguise that. Having not read the source material, I can’t really say there was a great character study here just waiting to get out, but if there was it’s drowned out here by clichéd tropes, lacklustre action, and heavy handed sermonizing against both sides of the political divide in the war on terror.