The frustratingly inconsistent Mira Nair, whose strengths and weaknesses as a director are apparent throughout her post-Mississippi Masala filmography, has a welcome facility with actors and visual vocabulary that's often offset by her propensity toward heavy-handed speechifying and a reductive approach to the complex issues her films tend to embrace. Given that The Reluctant Fundamentalist, adapted from Mohsin Hamid's novel of the same name, is her most ambitious project to date, it's unfortunate but unsurprising that the film represents those strengths and weaknesses writ large upon the most expansive canvas yet.
Taking into account current geopolitical tensions, the story is both relevant and—when it refrains from sermonizing or condescension—reasonably involving. It begins in present-day Lahore, with the kidnapping of an American academic by a militant group. As tensions between city police, CIA personnel, and Lahore's politically engaged student population escalate, his reported connection with a militant cleric puts local professor and repatriated immigrant Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed) in the midst of the fray. Khan decides to set the record straight, granting an interview to skeptical American journalist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber). This provides the framing story for a series of lengthy flashbacks as Khan recounts his personal arc from privileged Lahore childhood and Princeton education to budding career as a Wall Street hatchet-man all the way to his return home at the heels of a post-9/11 identity crisis.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist rests heavily on Ahmed's shoulders and, thankfully, he's up to the task, investing a role that's more ideological mouthpiece than three-dimensional character with some measure of emotional nuance. The film's first half boasts some muscular storytelling in its energetic portrayal of Changez's vertiginous rise up Wall Street's professional and social hierarchy, made all the more interesting by a deliciously off-kilter performance by Kiefer Sutherland as Jim Cross, Changez's mentor. Sutherland plays the über-capitalist as a shark with hidden depths, suggesting the pathological killer instinct of Jack Bauer lurking behind the buttoned up demeanor (and glasses) of Mad Men's Lane Pryce.
Once the towers fall, however, momentum slows and the narrative starts building laboriously toward various clunky thematic revelations. Every character and plot mechanic becomes a symbol for something Greater. The book focuses—with sensitivity—on Changez's internal conflict. Part of this is his reaction to the xenophobia (overt and otherwise) of post-9/11 America, but more complicated are the ways in which he becomes defensive about his Pakistani identity. Pre-9/11, he had assimilated effortlessly into American culture with comparatively little guilt, but, now, finding his status as citizen of the world threatened by co-workers and airport immigration officers alike, Changez becomes painfully aware of a need to "pick a side." Nair retains this private tug of war, though she robs it of its subtleties. Throughout, Americans are almost all portrayed as xenophobic thugs or heartless corporate drones; there's even a scene where Changez is intimidated in a parking lot by a Southern-redneck archetype. Where Hamid utilizes Changez's relationship with SoHo artist Erica (Kate Hudson, the only casting misstep) as a way into his character's emotional landscape and an affecting subplot in its own right, Nair reduces their rapport to yet another obvious symbol, a parallel to Changez's deteriorating connection to the United States.
There's a crackling moment of provocation when Changez admits to having experienced a fleeting moment of admiration for the 9/11 terrorists ("The ruthlessness of the act was surpassed only by its genius")—a loaded sentiment ripe for exploration, but Nair glosses over it. The moment is symptomatic of a film that, notwithstanding its (almost) uniformly able cast, is all squandered potential, beholden to sledgehammer blows of contrived thematic convergence. And it becomes even more ideologically confused when Nair starts to connect Changez's personal struggle to its socio-cultural context. Lip service is paid to the concept of cross-cultural exchange, but a discomfiting "us vs. them" mentality keeps rearing its ugly head. Late in Changez's career, he's tasked with gutting a publishing company in Istanbul (the historical border between East and West, natch), and a world-weary caricature of a publisher compares the young analyst to the Ottoman Empire's janissaries, Christian boys kidnapped by the Turks to be turned into soldiers for the Muslim army. The explicit message, once again, is that Changez is the servant of a new kind of empire and that he needs to reassert his loyalty to his "own kind." The idea that this wealthy financier is an un-empowered pawn is faintly absurd (he should try being an expat writer—therein lies real servitude), but what bothers me, as a South Asian immigrant to the United States, is the suggestion that to seek a life elsewhere is to betray oneself and one's people. To be fair, this exchange occurs in the book, but Nair's presentation is strangely unilateral, coming off more like a moral judgment than Hamid's thought-provoking exhortation for immigrants to examine their role in transnational flows both social and economic.
By the time Nair arrives at her thesis statement equating American capitalism to violent religious extremist groups in a cringe-worthy sequence cutting between Cross lecturing interns about "the importance of fundamentals" and a militant cleric instructing his students about the same, myriad opportunities have been lost. Considered criticism of fundamentalism in both countries is discarded in favor of the distinctive breed of crass anti-Americanism that gives progressive politics a bad name. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the laziest sort of political cinema, full of straw men and finger pointing, wrapped up in an awards-friendly bow by its beautiful cinematography and a manipulative world music-y score. Gussied up with the commercial—and ironically fear-mongering—trappings of the Hollywood thriller, it builds to a crescendo, only to resort to a copout ending that comes to a conclusion beaten to death by a decade of terrorism-centric cinema: that we're all one personal tragedy away from becoming militant fundamentalists. It's all a gigantic waste of potential, prompting a yearning for the halcyon days of Salaam Bombay, when Nair could mine more genuine drama from a conversation between two children than she could in this entire transcontinental epic.