Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 masterpiece, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” makes wizardly use of a constrained point of view in ways that don’t readily lend themselves to film.
The voice of the novel’s Pakistani narrator, Changez, is all we have to go by as he tells his story to an American he meets seemingly by chance in the streets of Lahore. The wary American may have an agenda or mission he’s trying to carry out. So may Changez. But the book isn’t a political thriller in any conventional sense. Instead, it’s a parsing of Changez’s malleable, cross-cultural identity as it’s warped, first by the promise of the American Dream, then by historical events.
In adapting the book to film, director Mira Nair (“The Namesake,” “Salaam Bombay!”) has opened it out, sometimes to its detriment. Where the book favors understatement, the film can be over-obvious. Where the book’s plot is minimal, the film adds a kidnapping and turbulent crowd scenes. While Hamid never spells out the identity of his nameless American, Nair outs him as a CIA agent (a restive, conflicted Liev Schreiber) almost from the start.
Still, when she sticks close to her source material, she has a sure and telling touch.
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Changez (Riz Ahmed) is a Princeton whiz kid recruited to a Wall Street firm by power-player Jim (Kiefer Sutherland) who, surprisingly, sees something of his younger self in Changez. The firm’s mission: to evaluate the worth of businesses with an eye to trimming the fat from them.
“We do that by focusing on the fundamentals,” Jim proclaims.
Changez is game at first. He likes the money, he likes his artsy girlfriend Erica (Kate Hudson) and he likes helping out his genteel but cash-poor family back in Lahore. Then comes 9/11. Everything changes in the way Americans perceive him — and his whole sense of himself starts to crumble.
Ahmed cannily captures Changez’s cool intoxication with his Wall Street success. He’s just as good on the way this whiz kid unravels as the ground shifts beneath him. His sparring and connection with Sutherland (in flashbacks) and Schreiber (in the present) feel electric and real. His romance with Hudson’s Erica, oddly, is the most misjudged departure from the book, substituting something overt for elements that, in the novel, are hauntingly, insolubly elusive.
Handsomely crafted and smartly performed, the film works on its own terms. But in expanding the story’s canvas, it dilutes rather than translates the power of the book.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org