"The Reluctant Fundamentalist" tells the story of a young New Yorker whose life is upturned by 9/11 in ways he never imagined. He's a Princeton grad and Wall Street star but also a Pakistani, which never used to be a problem. His name is Changez, pronounced "chung-GEZ," but Americans tend to mangle it, rather symbolically, as "changes."
That, of course, is exactly what he does. Played with great intelligence and sensitivity by Riz Ahmed (a British actor of Pakistani heritage), Changez initially swaps his third-world life for a shiny new one: fine suit, big salary, trust-fund girlfriend (a very good Kate Hudson). After the collapse of the Twin Towers, though, Changez finds himself being eyeballed by co-workers, cuffed by cops and cavity-searched at the airport.
Changez's loyalties begin to shift, and he defiantly grows a beard. "It reminds me of where I'm from," he says. A black colleague offers some advice: "Jerk chicken reminds me of where I'm from, but I don't smear it all over my face."
"The Reluctant Fundamentalist" is rich with such small but resonant moments, and it offers an interesting view of America through foreign eyes. Changez tries to be cool with his gay boss (Kiefer Sutherland), with casual dating, with a job that makes him rich on the backs of others. Ten years later, though, he's back in Lahore, being interviewed by a foreign correspondent (Liev Schreiber) who suspects him of assisting in a terrorist plot.
Here is where "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" begins to break down. It flips between past and present in an effort to keep us guessing about Changez, but it keeps interrupting the rhythms of two story lines that seem ill-matched to begin with. As a drama, it's compelling. As a spy thriller, it's pretty clunky CIA stuff. (William Wheeler wrote the script from Mohsin Hamid's novel.) "I had to pick a side," says one character, and that's something "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" probably should have done.
PLOT A Pakistani living in America finds his loyalties shifting after 9/11.
RATING R (language, some violence and brief sexuality)
BOTTOM LINE Fairly insightful as a drama, but barely adequate as a thriller. Ahmed is pitch-perfect as the conflicted hero, but he's in two movies that cancel each other out.