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Movie review: Witness a conversion in 'Reluctant Fundamentalist'

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Entertainment,Movies,Kelly Jane Torrance

"The Reluctant Fundamentalist" is a brave film. Though it's based on a novel that was shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize, its title and plot -- a Pakistani immigrant to America begins to question his loyalties after the attacks of Sept. 11 -- are likely enough to offend, and perhaps even enrage, many people here.

Such critics of the film would do well to watch it to the end. Though it does stumble now and then, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" will probably be one of the more thoughtful films you'll see in theaters this spring/summer. "Looks can be deceiving," its protagonist warns a journalist early on. That's as true of this film as it is of its slightly enigmatic lead character.

Changez (Riz Ahmed) tells the story of his "conversation," so to speak, to Bobby (Live Schreiber), a journalist in Lahore. (Or is Bobby just a journalist? Looks can be deceiving, remember.) An American academic was kidnapped in the Pakistani city the day before, and Bobby thinks Changez might be connected. Changez gives anti-American lectures at the same university and has been seen meeting with men who preach jihad. Changez decides to give Bobby a very long answer, taking him back a decade, to the days shortly before 9/11.

On screen
SSLqThe Reluctant Fundamentalist'
» Rating: 3 out of 4 stars
» Starring: Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber, Kiefer Sutherland
» Director: Mira Nair
» Rated: R for language, some violence, and brief sexuality
» Running time: 130 minutes

Changez grew up in Lahore, but goes to college in America. (His sister begs him to take her along: "I could be the dazzling new ethnic friend on 'Sex and the City' or something.") His father is a respected poet and the family has a large home, but they've come on hard times. Changez wants to restore the family's bank account -- which, after graduating with honors from Princeton, he begins to do.

He moves to New York City, after graduating in 2001, when he's hired by a high-powered financial film. Jim (Kiefer Sutherland) becomes his mentor -- not only does he see the boy's talent, he feels a kinship with him as someone else who's come up by his own bootstraps. He's on his way to becoming a big success, both professionally and personally: He begins a relationship with the niece of the CEO, a beautiful photographer named Erica (Kate Hudson).

But 9/11 changed a lot of people, and Changez is one of them. Before, he used to make light of his obvious heritage. When college friends are talking about where they see themselves in 25 years, he deadpans, "Let's see ... I'm going to be the dictator of an Islamic republic with nuclear capability." But his background is a much more serious matter now. He's arrested when police confuse one crazy Indian-looking man with him. His boss and co-workers tell him his beard is a little too "mullah." Even Erica can't help asking him what might have been in the minds of the terrorists.

A film like this stands or falls on the performance of its lead, and the young British actor Riz Ahmed doesn't disappoint. His transformation from starry-eyed immigrant -- God bless America indeed. God bless its level playing fields. God bless winning -- to can't-believe-his-luck rising master of the universe -- he (gratefully but privately) kisses the tie clip Jim gives him as a "down payment" on his promotion -- to angry academic is completely believable and completely compelling.

Not everything that happens to him is. And he certainly loses a measure of sympathy when he recalls turning on the television to see his adopted city in flames on Sept. 11, 2001: "In that moment I should have felt sorrow or anger. Instead, I felt awe."

But this story has the twists and turns of a international thriller, though it's much more thoughtful than that. And much more complicated. Changez describes how his feelings changed: "My anger congealed, hardened by injustice and disappointment." That last word hints that Changez knows that some of his problems are personal, not political. Which makes "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" much more worth watching that its title might lead you to believe.

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