Mira Nair comes up with only one moment of cinema in The Reluctant Fundamentalist and spends the rest of the 128 minutes refusing to think about it. Not that she’s obvious in her avoidance. Far from neglecting the rogue gesture, she surrounds it with expository monologues, polemical dialogues, diagrammatic incidents and a decade’s worth of editorial comment about the United States in relation to the Muslim world. Some of this scaffolding she borrows from the source novel by Mohsin Hamid, who contributed to the screen story; some she assembles with the help of other screenwriters. All of it is meant to explain the two seconds of truth that escape when Changez (Riz Ahmed), a young Pakistani expatriate with a fast-track Wall Street career, watches the television news on September 11, 2001, and abruptly breaks into a grin.
But why explain? The best reason to go to the movies—the only reason, some would say—is to encounter what The Reluctant Fundamentalist gives you just at that moment: the flash of emotion, unforced, unguarded and unapologetic. Films may give it to you on the face of an actor (such as Ahmed, who has the aquiline features and clever eyes of a subcontinental Gael García Bernal), or in any of a multitude of choices made by the director—the swerve of the camera toward an object of desire, the cut that propels you into the next image, the change of light that seems to bloom from within. Very little of this is ever truly spontaneous, of course; what you get, at most, is a well-prepared spontaneity. But to apply intelligence only toward the preparations, and never to the fact of the emotion itself, is like substituting taxidermy for a naturalist’s field study.
A bright young man of Muslim background, who has fallen in love with America and the luxury of opportunity it seems to offer, sees the Twin Towers destroyed by jihadis and can’t hold back a smile of pleasure. That’s the reality Nair pickles and stuffs. All of the issues on her intellectual agenda—capitalist inequity, cultural imperialism, racist contempt, abuse of police power on every level—might as well be so many units of formaldehyde, glue and kapok ticked off the supply list so long as she never allows Changez the freedom of his rage, humiliation and disillusionment, or lets loose as a director with any such feelings of her own. Toward the end of the film, when Changez has transformed himself into a college professor in Lahore with reputedly Islamist views, he declares in effect that he is now seeking autonomy where he belongs, in Pakistan, rather than adopting someone else’s values in the America that has spurned him. But then, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is always declaring things. Where are the unprompted urges that should be the substance of autonomy?
Changez can’t even break up with his white American girlfriend without the argument turning into a CNN debate. Erica (Kate Hudson, presented by Nair with dark hair and an incipient jowl) wails at Changez to stop attacking her, sounding as if she were hallucinating a Muslim horde about to materialize behind him. To this, Changez retorts that Erica goes about destroying people with a recklessness born of wealth and privilege, as if she were the US military-financial state in heels and a downtown party dress. It’s a problem that Changez comes off as being entirely in the right in the lovers’ quarrel. The bigger problem of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is that this isn’t a lovers’ quarrel at all.