Heading into The Reluctant Fundamentalist, you can't help but admire director Mira Nair's nerve. After suffering a setback like 2009's Amelia—a dull biopic about Earhart—many filmmakers would've looked to fly under the radar with their follow-up. However, this story of a Muslim foreigner growing fiercely disenchanted with his adopted American home was always bound to court controversy. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, it's likely to feel even more of the spotlight's glare. Unfortunately for Nair, this haphazard adaptation of Mohsin Hamid's novel doesn't stand up so well.
After an American professor is kidnapped in Lahore, journalist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber) scores an interview with Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed), a firebrand academic who's a "person of interest" in the disappearance. This establishes a Life of Pi-like framing device in which Changez flashes back to a life-altering journey he made from Pakistan to New York City in 2001. A rising star on Wall Street, where his cold-blooded, analytical traits are revered, he also falls for an affluent artist (a woeful Kate Hudson, saddled with a story line that even Neil LaBute might dismiss as "a little distasteful"). Then, the Twin Towers fall and Changez's world implodes.
Given the withering view Nair takes on the racial profiling that flourished after 9/11, it's odd that she's so comfortable populating her film with one-dimensional supporting characters and outright stereotypes. Even Ahmed has the unenviable task of uncovering the nuances of a character primarily charged with dispensing food for thought. Fortunately, he rises to the challenge, evincing Changez's internal conflict and conveying key turning points with subtle shifts in his bearing or hardening of his eyes. It's a sophisticated, engrossing performance that deserves better material than the stuff provided by Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler.
Regrettably, at its most crucial stage, The Reluctant Fundamentalist lacks the courage of its convictions, allowing Changez and Bobby's game of ideological cat-and-mouse to degenerate into a much more conventional standoff. Even the customarily frenetic camerawork of Declan Quinn (who made Rachel Getting Married look like The Hurt Locker) can't infuse the supposedly high-stakes climax with any sense of urgency. As Nair's film forgoes provocation for pandering, it assumes a tragic air, albeit not for the reasons she intended.
Critic's Grade: C
SEE IT: The Reluctant Fundamentalist is rated R. It opens Friday at Living Room Theaters.