'Reluctant Fundamentalist' loses veil of mystery on film

05:00 AM, May 02, 2013

'The Reluctant Fundamentalist,' with Kiefer Sutherland and Riz Ahmed, is based on a 2007 novel. Quantrell Colbert, Gannett/


Written By by Claudia Puig, USA TODAY

With recent world events still painfully fresh, The Reluctant Fundamentalist sounds like a tale ripped from the headlines.

But it’s actually based on a haunting 2007 novel by Mohsin Hamid, told in monologue style. The film (** ½ out of four; rated R; opens Friday in select cities) takes that riveting tale and flattens it, blunting much of the nuance that made it a great read.

Director Mira Nair wrings the complexity out of the lead character, Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed), a young Pakistani man educated at Princeton who eventually becomes a university professor at a university in Lahore.

In the book, Changez spins his personal story to an unidentified American as they sat in a Lahore tea house. It’s never revealed just who Changez is speaking to, though there’s a mounting sense that it may be an operative who is there possibly to arrest him.

Ambiguity is the cornerstone of the novel and it’s what makes it a thought-provoking page-turner.

That ambiguity is missing in the movie, which amounts to a tactical error. And swaths of the plot are changed. Instead of Changez speaking to an unnamed person, he’s telling his tale to American journalist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), who is also working for the CIA and seeking information on a kidnapped professor. As they speak, Lincoln is getting instruction through an earpiece from a CIA team. Meanwhile, Changez now appears to be the leader of a group of demonstrating Pakistani students.

It might have been tough to pull off the vagueness of the novel in a compelling cinematic fashion, but it would have been fascinating to see a filmmaker try. Instead, a contemplative tale is reduced to what feels like a lesser episode of Homeland.

In the book, the Muslim Changez, is, as the title implies, slowly radicalized for complicated reasons. But whether he’s guilty of actual terrorism is unclear.

In the movie, a series of racial profiling incidents simplistically result in Changez’s turn to fundamentalism.

Ahmed was a wise casting choice for Changez who, upon his graduation from Princeton, goes to work as a financial analyst. Charismatic and confident, he is mentored by his hard-charging boss Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland). He also falls in love with Erica (a miscast Kate Hudson), an artsy American photographer.

Changez becomes increasingly disenchanted with the American dream he had embraced but his mounting disillusionment is rather superficially portrayed.

Ominously, he speaks of smiling when he watched the footage of the World Trade Center attack. It’s a chilling admission and perhaps a sign that he plans to embrace terrorism. But that mystery evaporates as Changez emerges as an innocent and it’s Bobby, reporter-turned-CIA operative, who makes a fatal blunder.

The message Nair focuses on is the danger of jumping to conclusions in pitched situations. It’s a valid message, but deviates from the book’s intentional aura of inscrutability.

Declan Quinn’s stunning cinematography makes it enthralling it to watch, but the book’s probe of cultural identity in an era of globalization is ill-served by making the film a generic espionage thriller.