The story of a young Pakistani man (Riz Ahmed) torn between native loyalty and American promise, Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist premièred in Venice in August 2012 and has been scheduled for American release for months. But by the kind of coincidence that turns passersby into victims, the film arrives at precisely the moment its subject has been thrust into the public sphere—although whether that makes the timing ideal or its inverse remains to be seen.
From Mississippi Masala to the high-water mark of The Namesake, culture clash has been Nair’s great subject, but she’s had more success with the profile than the polemic. The ideas behind her films are less engaging than the ways her characters hold themselves up to them, or fail trying. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, adapted by William Wheeler and Ami Boghani from Mohsin Hamid’s novel, is at its best when it’s focused on Ahmed’s journey between cultures, as he trades his poet father (Om Puri) for the mentorship of Kiefer Sutherland’s cutthroat financier. But when Nair tries to take in the larger picture, her focus goes slack, and all that’s left is a blur.
At first, Ahmed takes to the purported meritocracy of American life: “God bless your level playing fields,” he muses in voiceover, “and God bless winning.” (Nair accompanies the sentiment with a shot of Ahmed dodging defenders on a soccer pitch and scoring a goal, which is unfortunately indicative of the film’s less-than-feather-light touch.) Cultural differences don’t pass unnoticed, but they can be defused with a sharp-edged joke: When Ahmed’s co-workers ask where he sees himself in 25 years, he quips “as the dictator of an Islamic republic with nuclear capabilities.” But after 9/11, the subject can’t be ignored, or even addressed. The elephant is too big for the room.
Nair unwisely frames the story through a present-day conversation between Ahmed and journalist Liev Schreiber, who presses him for information on a university professor who has been kidnapped by radicals possibly connected to Ahmed. It’s clear that Ahmed’s reserves of anger run deep, as young men’s do, but the movie offers little to make sense of his statement that the first emotion he felt seeing the World Trade Center explode was a sense of awe, almost an admiration of its audacity. Too often, the characters are shifted like game pieces controlled by an unseen hand. Kate Hudson, whose romance with Ahmed holds the key to completing his Americanization, is flighty, troubled, or deceitful—whatever will move Ahmed where he needs to be at a particular point. (Hudson is way out of her depth playing a multimedia artist, but she has so little to work with, it’s like she’s paddling with toothpicks.) Likewise in his exchanges with Schreiber, Ahmed is arbitrarily opaque, his caginess impossible to parse except as a function of the movie’s trumped-up thriller mechanics. This might be the best week for The Reluctant Fundamentalist to open or the worst, but the timing doesn’t matter when the powder is damp.