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‘Reluctant Fundamentalist’ Review: Missed Opportunity to Weigh In on Anti-Muslim Discrimination

This story of an America-loving Pakistani radicalized by post-9/11 racism couldn’t be more zeitgeist-y, but the film is an overblown slog

You could argue that the opening-weekend box office for “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” could be either hurt or helped by the recent alleged actions of a pair of not-so-reluctant ones in Boston, but this isn’t a financial projection, it’s a movie review. And as a movie, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is an overblown slog and, sadly, a missed opportunity to take an intelligent and unblinking look at thoughtless anti-Muslim prejudice in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

All the elements are there to tell a sharp, strong story, but director Mira Nair (“The Namesake,” “Monsoon Wedding”) and screenwriter William Wheeler (“The Hoax”), adapting the novel by Mohsin Hamid, take the events of the day and simplify them into a blunt force object where subtlety and wit are replaced by sermonizing and melodramatics.

It’s 2011, and boozy, Lahore-based American journalist Bobby (Liev Schreiber) interviews Changez (Riz Ahmed), a professor and suspected terrorist sympathizer, as tensions in the street threaten to become violent. Changez (pronounced shahn-jezz) tells Bobby the story of how he got there. We flash back to Changez as a young Pakistani student at Princeton, ambitiously seeking to regain the family wealth that his poet father has allowed to dissipate over the years.

Changez’s go-getter attitude impresses corporate recruiter Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland), who recognizes in him a fellow outsider willing to go the extra mile to succeed. Possessed with drive and a talent for the job, not to mention a budding relationship with the boss’ niece Erica (Kate Hudson), Changez establishes himself as a ruthlessly successful up-and-comer in the world of corporate consolidation and takeovers.

And then, 9/11.

His co-workers start muttering behind his back, policemen harass him for no good reason, and even Erica exploits their relationship in a ludicrously confessional art installation. (Among embarrassing portrayals of high art in movies, Erica’s silly multi-media piece ranks up there with Daryl Hannah’s pyromaniac one-woman show in “Legal Eagles.”)

Changez’s disillusion with capitalism is cemented when his firm is assigned to gut a struggling Turkish publisher — a venerable company whose many books include the poems of Changez’s father — and strip it for parts.

Just because an artist is portraying a real-life horror, it doesn’t excuse him or her from doing so effectively; Muslims were indeed harassed and beaten and even killed in the U.S. after 9/11, but “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” portrays Changez’s plight, and his conversion from Master of the Universe to potential revolutionary, in such a two-dimensional way that it dissipates the real-life urgency of the story.

In the same way that actual racism doesn’t make “Crash” a good movie, the truth of anti-Muslim hysteria doesn’t excuse the clumsy and overwrought portrayal of it in the film.

Besides, once they throw in Changez’s qualms over taking over the publishing house, the waters are muddied: Is the film saying he would have been OK with destroying the publisher if 9/11 had never happened? Or that he would have continued to pursue his Wall Street dreams post-9/11 if the company hadn’t devoured the publisher?

There is simultaneously too much and not enough going on here.

Nair has a fairly good track record of shaping strong performances even in films that don’t really work (Reese Witherspoon’s in “Vanity Fair,” for instance), but we get a mixed bag here. Riz Ahmed (“Four Lions”), to his credit, makes as much proverbial chicken salad as he can with this dreadful script, and Sutherland humanizes a character that could have easily been a stick-figure gray-flannel shark.

On the other end of the spectrum is the truly embarrassing Kate Hudson, whom we’re supposed to believe as a trustafarian, free-spirited artist with a dark past; she fails to register as … well, she fails to register, period. And poor Schreiber, usually a compelling screen presence, can’t make his thankless “And then what happened?” turn interesting in the slightest.

And while Nair can often be a very strong storyteller (she spins a far better culture-clash yarn in “Mississippi Masala”), she doesn’t appear to have a knack for action sequences, at least based on the evidence here. As Changez and Bobby talk, there’s a riot waiting to happen and American forces preparing to storm a compound, and it all feels very messy and unsuspenseful.

Some define art as a way of holding a mirror up to the world, and “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” certainly could and should have done so. Instead, it’s the cinematic equivalent of seven years of bad luck.