Matt Pais, @mattpais
RedEye movie critic
May 2, 2013
**1/2 (out of four)
Say this for “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”: When its reporter entertains a long story from his subject, he actually takes notes and uses a tape recorder. Like he actually plans to remember what was said! That was too much detail for the weak storytelling of “Life of Pi.”
In “Fundamentalist,” the reporter is Bobby (Liev Schreiber), a New Jersey native assigned to Pakistan. His subject: Suspected terrorist Changez (Riz Ahmed of “Trishna” and “Four Lions”), who attempts to explain how he went from a high-paying financial analyst in New York to spouting anti-American rhetoric as a professor in Lahore. That progression would be significant on its own, but Bobby and Changez's chat contains added urgency as the CIA searches for Changez' American colleague at the university who has recently been kidnapped.
Since we already have a drama and a thriller, how about a romance, too? In the film's flashback to the beginning of the '00s, Changez has a meet-cute with artist Erica (Kate Hudson, unconvincing) who, as chance would have it, is the niece of the head honcho at Changez' company. That contrivance epitomizes the way director Mira Nair (“The Namesake”) and co-writer Mohsin Hamid, adapting his bestselling novel, shoehorn this plotline into the story.
The racial profiling and subsequent humiliation Changez experiences in post-9/11 America more than speak to his feelings of displacement without need for a superficial relationship with--MILD SPOILER ALERT--a manufactured conflict that's like a toned-down version of Neil LaBute's “The Shape of Things.”
As Changez's boss Jim, an engaging Keifer Sutherland barks orders but takes a break from Jack Bauer by traveling the world and not putting himself in harm's way. He and practically all Americans in the film do little to separate Changez from stereotypes--Jim suggests his employee's promotion is contingent on his appearance, not so subtly referencing the beard Changez says he grew to feel closer to his home.
Never does “Fundamentalist” approach the complexity or intensity of “Zero Dark Thirty,” and Nair's depiction of inaccurate American intelligence comes off as finger-wagging rather than a thoughtful indictment of thoughtless lunges toward justice. She doesn't lean too hard on the typical, my-conservative-parents-don't-understand-my-modern-goals narrative from this part of the world, aside from lines like Changez’s mom noting, “He doesn't want to sing those songs anymore; he's an American now.”
Through a challenging performance from Ahmed, Nair captures a man whose point of view struggles to solidify among people who decide they already know what they need to know about him. Whether it's fair to paint his rootlessness and sorrow as teetering on the verge of violence is a question many still strive to answer as terrible things continue to happen in the world and the “Why?” doesn't get any easier.
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