You'll recall that Roger Ebert longed to be chosen in The New Yorker's cartoon caption contest (and eventually was). Similarly, I longed to be chosen for Ebert's "Little Movie Glossary," the compendium of cinematic clichés maintained by the late critic, whom I really miss.
True, I only bothered to send in one entry. It was this:
The Go-Go's. In action thrillers, teams of trained operatives spring into action only when someone yells, "Go go go go!"
I was surprised to encounter the Go-Go's in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. It was directed by Mira Nair, a thoughtful filmmaker who has examined the American immigrant experience perceptively. Nair films like Mississippi Masala and The Namesake are about characters stuck between worlds, at home nowhere in particular.
There are thoughtful, perceptive moments in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, about a young man who likewise is stuck between worlds. But there also are action-thriller elements that feel hackneyed, including the Go-Go's and a lazy plot development involving a cellphone connection that is dropped at, gosh darn it, just the wrong moment.
Based on Mohsin Hamid's 2007 novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist centers on a Pakistani professor named Changez (Riz Ahmed). In Lahore, he tells his story to an American journalist (Liev Schreiber). Meanwhile, an increasingly tense hostage crisis unfolds. That's the action-thriller part.
Changez's story is seen in flashbacks. The son of a Pakistani poet, he goes to college at Princeton. After he aces an interview with a Wall Street manager (Kiefer Sutherland), Changez begins a dazzling career as a business analyst, the kind of guy who helps firms save money by telling them which employees to fire. His young colleagues are like vaudeville portrayals of craven Wall Streeters.
With a New York artist (Kate Hudson) he strikes up a romance, and before long he is on track to be another contented one-percenter. Then come the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In a series of racial-profiling incidents, he is brutalized by the American authorities. His girlfriend humiliates him. He has a crisis of conscience. Soon he is back in Pakistan, where he teaches adoring college students.
The scenes in the U.S. are compelling, more compelling than the framing sequences in Lahore. But I worry that Nair oversimplifies this material. We see that Changez is transformed in a moment of compassion. He realizes that he is disrupting workers' lives, all so stockholders can benefit. That is indeed the nature of business, and it isn't always pretty.
Nair is presenting a false choice, though - that Changez must accept the ways of Wall Street or else flee the West completely. I believe all kinds of interesting careers are open to Princeton graduates, including compassionate ones.