Whether it’s a case of life imitating art or art imitating life, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” makes for queasy but fairly worthy viewing less than a month after the Boston Marathon bombings. The new film by Mira Nair (“Monsoon Wedding”), based on the acclaimed 2007 novel by Mohsin Hamid, concerns a young Pakistani man, Changez (Riz Ahmed), who has attained the American dream at 25 only to find it crumbling in his hands in the post-9/11 landscape.
Nuanced and provocative, the story makes what we know of Tamerlan Tsarnaev — apparently self-radicalized after his failure to find acceptance in professional boxing and elsewhere — look like a crude cartoon. Yet the echoes are there, of the promises America offers and the ways they can be denied, of identities adopted and lost to frustration or hate.
The crucial difference is that Changez chooses the path of nonviolence. Or does he? That ambiguity is at the heart of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” — the title comes to embrace much more than religious fundamentalism — and Nair, working with screenwriters William Wheeler, Ami Boghani, and Hamid himself, is never quite sure what to do with it. The novel took the form of a monologue, Changez telling his life story to a nameless American in a Lahore cafe. The movie fills in the details. Too many, as it turns out.
Now the American is an international reporter named Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), who may or may not be in the employ of the CIA, and Changez is a professor who may or may not be training his students in insurrection. Another professor, an American (Gary Richardson), is kidnapped during a bravura opening sequence, propelled by the Sufi devotional music known as qawwali, that shows off Nair’s strengths as a director.
Instead of the nameless cafe, Changez tells his story to Bobby in a university hangout with the Pakistani police outside in the streets and the students poised to riot — not a moment conducive to a languorous monologue about How I Got Here. Nevertheless, into the flashbacks we go.
Ahmed is easily the best thing in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” The actor (“Trishna,” “Four Lions”) is slender and handsome, with large, liquid eyes that can widen in naivete or narrow with wit. He’s a natural movie star, just as Changez is a born leader at Princeton and in the Darwinian world of Wall Street. The son of an upper-class Pakistani poet (Om Puri), he has taken to New York and the lifestyle of a highly paid financial expert — looking for the fat in companies and coolly slicing it out — with the triumph of a man conquering the unconquerable.
Then the towers are destroyed, and Changez is mortified to find himself secretly thrilled, some dark corner in him responding to the humbling of America’s power. Yet he stays true to his course, which includes a hip, neurotic downtown girlfriend (Kate Hudson, not very convincing) and a workplace fast track enabled by his shark of a boss (Kiefer Sutherland), who urges a business fundamentalism in which there’s no room for human feeling.
The problem is that Changez is, fundamentally, a compassionate man. The movie is about figuring out who you are when other people, or at least the New York cops who strip-search the hero in one scene, are certain they already know. Changez responds in immature ways, growing a defiantly scruffy beard and refusing to shave it, but also with a growing awareness of where his gifts and his decency might be best put to use.
It’s a simple story, really, but Nair mucks it up with the hot-button suspense of the framing scenes: surging crowds and rooftop standoffs, panicky cellphone calls and crackling walkie-talkies. She’s reaching for a larger message — that Muslim nations have to forge their own peaceful futures, that Americans going in with guns only makes matters worse — that ends up trampling the subtle, more clear-eyed agonies of the book’s character study. Nair remains a formidable filmmaker, but you could argue that she has made the wrong film here, and not because of its timing.