It’s 2013, and it’s still difficult living in America if you’re of Middle Eastern descent—or look like you might be of Middle Eastern descent, or have a name that’s usually given to people of Middle Eastern descent. (Hussein? Sorry, you’re not flying today. And a birth certificate from you, Mr. President.) So imagine the profiling, harassment, and humiliation that took place nearly 12 years ago, immediately after 9/11. Mira Nair (The Namesake, Monsoon Wedding) depicts that atmosphere in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, adapted by a trio of screenwriters from a novel by Mohsin Hamid.
Life of Pi-style, the film consists primarily of flashbacks as young university professor Changez (the personality-fluid Riz Ahmed) tells his story to a journalist named Bobby (Liev Schreiber) in a Pakistani café in 2011. Their eyes dart as police briefly raid the place (apparently a routine thing), and the whole area oozes volatility. Bobby wants information on the whereabouts of a fellow professor—who had been kidnapped and held hostage by terrorists—from Changez, who might be involved. Changez asks Bobby to listen to everything he says from beginning to end before making a judgment—and during his telling, reveals that he knows that Bobby, while he is a journalist, is interviewing him for a more underhanded purpose. Whoops.
Changez wasn’t always a professor; a decade earlier he relocated to New York City as a hotshot financial analyst. He meets Erica (Kate Hudson), a photographer/artist with whom he quickly falls in love. (You can tell because Nair has sunlight flaring on them while in bed as their laughs echo absurdly.) Changez rockets up the ladder at his company (mentored by his boss, slickly played by Kiefer Sutherland), even though his family, including his poet father (Om Puri), regards him as a disloyal sellout.
But Changez is happy with and proud of his lot—at least until the towers fall. Then come the strip searches, false arrests, and shout-outs such as “Fuck you, Osama!” (Though it’s the flattest anger-spewing ever. Nair should have told the actor, “Once more, with feeling!”) Erica opens an unwittingly offensive installation at a gallery that makes the already-beaten-down Changez fume. “But it’s [the story of] us!” she sobs, because she’s just that clueless. She should have titled the work, “I’m so cool, I’m dating a brown-skinned guy during this time of unrest!”
All this somehow leads to Changez returning to Pakistan and teaching, though he tells Bobby, “I am a lover of America.” The title of the film comes from a word used both in his finance career and by militants—“fundamentals.” But even if you listen as closely as Bobby does, you may still not understand exactly what made Changez return to Pakistan and take up a cause. A clearer theme of the film is the issue of whom one can trust during conflict when anyone could be regarded as suspicious. That idea figures into the film’s twisty, chaotically presented finale, which returns to talk of the hostage perhaps long forgotten about by the viewer. Again, what exactly goes down is a bit of a puzzle, with the action moving too quickly for one keep track of the details. The Reluctant Fundamentalist may not be a total success, but it does provide what to some audiences will be a revelatory portrait of what it’s like to be an Other.