In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, with even President Obama asking, "Why did young men who grew up and studied here as part of our communities and our country resort to such violence?" comes a smart, provocative film that compellingly addresses these kinds of concerns.
Directed by Mira Nair from Mohsin Hamid's exceptional novel, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" offers no answers but rather presents different ways to frame the question.
With a splendid performance by Riz Ahmed as its centerpiece, "Reluctant Fundamentalist" is richer in complexities than films we usually get. It's able to deal with the geopolitical ramifications of the world we have made, unwittingly or not, a world where people who should be our friends may have unaccountably become our enemies.
Nair has turned Hamid's elegant but ambivalent novel about a gifted Pakistani falling in and out of love with American capitalism into an intricately plotted screen thriller with a conventional beginning, middle and end.
The tale begins in Lahore, Pakistan, in 2011 at a party where the entertainment is a mesmerizing form of Sufi music. Tensely intercut with this party scene, we see the daring off-the-street kidnapping of an American professor.
Soon, a ransom note is delivered: pay money, release prisoners or the man will die. The scene shifts to a U.S. special-ops team keeping a watch on a tea house in the old part of the city. Scheduled to meet there are two wary men who may or may not be more than they seem.
Bobby Lincoln (the always solid Liev Schreiber) is an American journalist who's lived in Lahore long enough to pick up a taste for drugs and a fluency in Urdu. The man he has shown up to interview, Changez Khan (Ahmed) is a professor who has a reputation for being "Pakistan's new militant academic," a man with a palpable grudge against the U.S.
Yet the first thing Changez tells Bobby is that appearances can be deceptive. "I am a lover of America," he says with complete sincerity, adding that for many years he was "a soldier in your economic army," and a happy one at that. How that double transformation took place -- how Changez went from Pakistani to American back to Pakistani -- is what "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" is all about.
The bulk of this film is a flashback, as Changez describes his down-at-the-heels aristocratic family, his time at Princeton, his pursuit of the American dream and a romance with a New York photographer (Kate Hudson).
The attacks of Sept. 11 alter everything for Changez, how his world thinks of him and what he thinks about it. He has to decide who he is, where he stands and what he thinks about how America conducts itself in the world and what his response should be.
'THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST'
* * * 1/2
Rating: R (for language, some violence and brief sexuality)
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Liev Schreiber and Kate Hudson
Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes