The Reluctant Fundamentalist: The Post-9/11 Novel Doesn’t Quite Translate to Film

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Opens Fri., May 3 at Guild 45th. Rated R. 128 minutes.

The 2010 film Four Lions is about a British cell of Islamic fundamentalists plotting to plant homemade explosive devices at—among other targets—the London marathon. It’s an uproarious comedy.

Too soon after the Boston bombings to recall this scathing movie? Maybe, but it shouldn’t be—Chris Morris’ prediction of stupid, self-styled jihadists looks even keener and more furious than it did three years ago.

In Four Lions, Oxford-educated actor and hip-hop artist Riz Ahmed played the leader of the hapless terrorists. That movie’s a better vehicle for the wunderkind artist Ahmed than this tepid new effort from director Mira Nair, which passes glumly over distantly related turf.

Ahmed, a quick, compact performer, is the main draw here. He plays Changez, a charismatic professor in Lahore, who recounts his story to a U.S. journalist (Liev Schreiber). While the two sweat out a crisis involving a kidnapped Western academic, Changez’s past life unfolds in big blocks of flashback.

Having come to America at 18, Changez goes through mostly expected ups and downs: upper-class girlfriend (Kate Hudson, dark-wigged for the serious material), brilliant success at Manhattan financial firm specializing in cannibalizing small companies, mentorship from tough-but-supportive boss (Kiefer Sutherland).

And September 11. You probably figured that was coming. Changez absorbs anti-Muslim anger and lets his beard grow out, eventually returning to Pakistan. If this tale has a shot at succeeding, it probably needs a better frame than the present-day kidnapping story, which feels like a tricked-up stab at suspense.

Nair is a talented image-maker, and the grainy widescreen cinematography (by Declan Quinn) is convincing. But except for the occasional zinger from Sutherland’s Wall Street shark, the clunky dialogue sets forth one issue after another, betraying a seriously tin ear for the way people actually speak. There was a time when Nair could be socially conscious in her films while creating a real flow (Salaam Bombay and Mississippi Masala), but that hasn’t been true in a while.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is adapted from Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel, and in almost every way it feels like a wrongheaded attempt to juice up a book. In this case, Ahmed is the real juice, and the movie around him operates on a noticeably dimmer wattage.

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