Here is a film that is quite possibly too ambitious for its own good. The movie, based on the novel by Moshin Hamid, attempts to be both a character-driven culture clash story and a thriller, but it goes a step further in exploring its main Muslim character’s role in post-9/11 America, along with his American counterpart’s role in post-9/11 Pakistan. This is a lot to pack into two hours of movie — and Ms. Nair isn’t entirely successful in the attempt, but that doesn’t diminish the attempt, nor those parts of it that succeed. The very fact that Nair — who is very at home on the subject of culture clashes — tackled a thriller is noteworthy, as is the fact that she doesn’t blow it. That she made a film where I didn’t spend the entire time wishing Kate Hudson was elsewhere is an achievement in its own right.
At the center of the story is Changez, a young, Princeton-educated, America-loving Pakistani, who went to America to live the, yes, American Dream. Changez is played by the incredible Riz Ahmed — whom a handful of you may remember as the much-beleagured terrorist in the little-seen black comedy Four Lions (2010). Without him, the movie would be unthinkable. Changez is from an upscale and not particularly religious background, and he slides quite comfortably into the corporate and social world of America before 9/11 — becoming a hotshot player at a big consulting firm and falling in love with Erica (Kate Hudson), an artist/photographer. Everything is going his way until the terrorist attacks that change the rules. Suddenly, he finds himself being subjected to racial profiling and suspicion from all sides (including his own mind). This — and a crise de consience of another kind — cause him to chuck it all and return to Pakistan where he becomes a radical professor who may or may not be part of a terrorist group.
The question of who he is fuels the thriller aspect and frames the film. The background story outlined above is told in flashbacks to American reporter Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), who may be more than a reporter and who is certainly working for the CIA. Suspense is generated over a kidnapped American professor and growing tensions in the country. But the suspense only partly works — mostly because it feels less honest than the questions surrounding it, and less interesting than whether Changez was a reluctant fundamentalist capitalist or is now a reluctant fundamentalist radical — and whether either of these characterizations define him. Flawed but fascinating and well worth a look — if you bear in mind Changez’s warning at the onset that looks can be deceiving. Rated R for language, some violence and brief sexuality.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas