Well, this is unfortunate timing.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist arrives in art-house theaters in limited release twelve days after a terrorist bombing in Boston, one that claimed 3 fatalities and created over a hundred life-scarring injuries, one that resulted in a city-shaking manhunt, a police officer's death and the death of one suspect. Subsequent reports indicate that the two young men allegedly behind it all were guided by "religious fervor."
But the real problem with Mira Nair's latest drama isn't timing. If it had been released a month ago it would still be a bad film.
"All I want is a loft in SoHo, a weekend in the Hamptons and big, American boobs," says the soap actress sister of Pakistani man Changez (Riz Ahmed, star of the superior terrorism comedy Four Lions). And Changez is on the same page, committed to materialism, minus the part about the boobs. He leaves his family (their father is a middle-class poet) for New York and quickly makes a name for himself as a merciless corporate appraiser. "God bless America and its level playing fields," he says, learning how to gut reasonably functioning companies, bust unions and make recommendations for brutal mass layoffs. Naturally, this pleases his boss (Kiefer Sutherland) and the shareholders. In his spare time, Changez falls for a wannabe Larry Clark-style art photographer (Kate Hudson in a lose-lose role) who spends a lot of time aiming her camera at skateboarders. Then 9/11 happens. Changez reconnects to Islam and his life becomes a series of harassments, mistaken identity arrests and embarrassing gallery displays of his girlfriend's terrible art. Time to leave for Pakistan.
Back home he becomes a professor and is perceived to be sympathetic to anti-American causes, sparking concerns that he supports a student-grown terrorist organization and drawing American intelligence interest to his activities. And while Changez still lacks the self-awareness to make the connection within his own thought process, the movie goes full-tilt sledgehammer with parallels between the corporate culture of greed where quotidian terrorism involves ruining workers' lives and the more clear-cut brand of blowing-up-everybody terror. There's a lot of chatter about "fundamentals" in both camps and director Nair is going to make sure you get the message by any dull means necessary.
Landing with a thud every step of the way (in spite of Ahmed's solid, sympathetic performance) the film decides that the tragedy on display is the thoughtless judgment of books by their covers, of people unable to see that both economic and political brutality bring equal misery to the world, of the world refusing to listen to its poets. But the religious fervor component is never fully addressed -- weird for a movie with "fundamentalist" in its title -- unbalancing the center and highlighting the real tragedies on screen: honkingly obvious moral positions, air-headed thrillerisms like, "You're playing a dangerous game" and a naively earnest can't-we-all-just-get-along worldview. Apparently we can't, yet the movie is still too timid to do anything but politely pretend it doesn't know that. Maybe Nair is saving those revelations for the sequel.