By Kenneth Turan, Tribune Newspapers critic
May 2, 2013
If there ever was a time to see "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," that time is now.
With a potent piece of fiction as its starting point and a splendid performance by Riz Ahmed as its centerpiece, "Reluctant Fundamentalist" is able to deal with the geopolitical ramifications of the world we have made, unwittingly or not, a world where people who should be our friends may have unaccountably become our enemies.
Director Mira Nair has managed the difficult feat of turning novelist Mohsin Hamid's elegant but ambivalent and elusive novel about a gifted Pakistani falling in and out of love with American capitalism into a film. She has taken what is essentially a monologue on the page and transformed it into an intricately plotted screen thriller with a conventional beginning, middle and end.
The tale begins in Lahore, Pakistan, in 2011 at a party where the entertainment is a sophisticated, mesmerizing form of Sufi music. No doubt aware that most Americans think of Pakistan as an uncultured hotbed of (yes) religious fundamentalism, Nair, whose father was born in Lahore, is intent on showing us the elegant side of its society. Tensely intercut with this party scene, we see the daring off-the-street kidnapping of an American professor. Soon, a ransom note is delivered.
The scene shifts to a U.S. special-ops team keeping watch on a tea house in the old part of the city. Scheduled to meet there are two wary men. Bobby Lincoln (always solid Liev Schreiber) is an American journalist who's lived in Lahore long enough to pick up a taste for drugs and a fluency in Urdu. The man he has shown up to interview, Changez Khan (Ahmed) is a professor who has a reputation for being "Pakistan's new militant academic," a man with a palpable grudge against the U.S.
Yet the first thing Changez tells Bobby is that appearances can be deceptive. "I am a lover of America," he says with complete sincerity, adding that for many years he was "a soldier in your economic army." The bulk of this film is a flashback, as Changez describes his down-at-the-heels aristocratic family, headed by a father (the veteran Om Puri) who is a well-known Punjabi poet. Believing that "poems don't buy generators," Changez lands a spot at Princeton University. He likes America because he believes it will give him an equal chance to win, and initially that seems to be true.
Changez becomes a golden boy at Wall Street powerhouse Underwood Samson. The firm is so good at helping international companies improve their value (often by cutting their workforce) that its operatives are known as "the Navy SEALs of financial analysis." Changez is also shown making progress romantically, getting involved with Erica (Kate Hudson), a hip New York photographer who has a complicated personal history. (Partly because of Hudson's performance, the relationship section is the film's least involving aspect.) The attacks of Sept. 11 alter everything for Changez, how his world thinks of him and, equally important, what he thinks about it. He has to decide who he is, where he stands, and what he thinks about how America conducts itself in the world and what his response should be.
Ahmed is especially good at portraying all the facets of this increasingly complex man, a fitting centerpiece to an increasingly intricate and involving film.
'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' -- 3 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for language, some violence and brief sexuality)
Running time: 2:08
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