“I am a lover of America.”
That’s what a Pakistani professor starts with as he tells an American journalist why he’s involved with Islamic fundamentalists after nearly mollywhopping the money-stuffed pinata that is the American dream.
This talk takes place in a tea house in Lahore. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, we soon realize, is one of those movies that have two parallel plots: one is the simmering conversation between the professor and the journalist; the other is the story of the professor’s past.
And the past starts at Princeton University, where the Pakistani professor, named Changez (Riz Ahmed), just kills it. Winning, he says, is what he does, and he went to America to compete on its level playing field. After school, he’s instantly picked up by a fancy NYC financial firm, where he easily makes his boss (played by the 24-intense Kiefer Sutherland) smile. He also meets a girl…
Meanwhile, in the present, things are getting tense. The journalist (Liev Schreiber) starts to seem sketchier and sketchier. Tensions also rise as the discussion veers off to a kidnapping that Changez may or may not know something about. But back to the past…
The event that changed everything for Changez was 9/11. After the attack, he finds himself on the receiving end of a body-cavity search and discovers that the New York he sought to conquer is now full of people who can’t see past the color of his skin (and the beard he’s bent on growing). Even his girlfriend (Kate Hudson) fails to offer the support he so desperately needs.
Forgive me if this is hard to follow. The movie’s story — which was taken from a novel by the same name — is a bit complex. Director Mira Nair, however, twists it impressively into a coherent and engaging thriller. Just a few things — like the performances of Ahmed and Hudson — broke the tension that’s so important to keep in this kind of movie.
Hudson, for instance, doesn’t quite jive with Ahmed on screen. Ahmed looks a boy in Hudson’s presence, making it difficult to buy that they’d become a couple. Then again, their relationship is so full of deep-seated problems that the visual awkwardness might make some thematic sense.
One theme that springs forth from the movie is that fundamentalism (of any religion or creed or business practice) leads to tragedy. Another, which goes hand-in-hand to the one just mentioned, is that people are more than what they seem. Every individual is a confluence of various forces and ideas, mashed-up, perhaps with parts in contradiction to others. Without understanding this, the movie shows, all sorts of inhuman stuff goes down in the name of businesses, nations and gods.
A note on news: I couldn’t imagine anyone watching this movie without thinking of the recent Boston bombings. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is quite critical as to how Americans treated people following the other major act of terror on our soil. Twitter, one writer said on April 15, does its best work 5 minutes after a tragedy and its worst work in the 12 hours after that. Perhaps, in a way, Americans aren’t too different: they behave their best in the immediate aftermath of terror, but our long-term reaction leaves things to be questioned. But through questioning our responses, our prejudices, our ways or seeing others, we could avoid being fundamentalists, so to speak.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is playing at the Lagoon Theater.