Tepid ‘Fundamentalist’ mishandles hot-button material

The 2010 film “Four Lions” is about a cell of Islamic fundamentalists plotting to plant homemade explosive devices at — among other targets — the London marathon. It’s an uproarious comedy.

Too soon after the Boston bombings to recall this scathing movie? Maybe, but it shouldn’t be. The film’s prediction of stupid self-styled jihadists looks even keener and more furious than it did three years ago.

Along with its value as a genuinely uncompromising satire, “Four Lions” serves as an excellent introduction to the Oxford-educated actor and hip-hop artist Riz Ahmed, a wunderkind artist who plays the leader of the hapless terrorists. That movie’s a better vehicle for Ahmed than “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” a tepid new effort from director Mira Nair, which passes glumly over distantly related turf.

Ahmed, a quick, compact performer, is the main draw here. He plays Changez, a charismatic professor in Lahore, Pakistan, who recounts his story to a U.S. journalist (Liev Schreiber); while the two sweat out a crisis involving a kidnapped Western academic in Lahore, Changez’s past life unfolds in big blocks of flashback.

Having come to America at 18, Changez goes through mostly expected ups and downs: upper-class girlfriend (Kate Hudson, dark-wigged for the serious material), brilliant success at Manhattan financial firm specializing in cannibalizing small companies, mentorship from tough-but-supportive boss (Kiefer Sutherland).

And Sept. 11. You probably figured that was coming. Changez absorbs anti-Muslim anger and lets his beard grow out, eventually returning to Pakistan. If this tale has a shot at succeeding, it probably needs a better frame than the present-day kidnapping story, which feels like a tricked-up stab at suspense.

Nair is a talented image-maker, and the grainy widescreen cinematography (Declan Quinn at the camera) is convincing. But except for the occasional zinger from Kiefer Sutherland’s Wall Street shark, the clunky dialogue sets forth one issue after another, betraying a serious tin ear for the way people actually speak.

There was a time when Nair could be socially conscious in her films while creating a real flow (“Salaam Bombay” and “Mississippi Masala”), but that hasn’t been true in a while.

“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is adapted from Mohsin Hamid’s novel, and in almost every way it feels like a wrongheaded attempt to juice up a book. In this case, Riz Ahmed is the real juice, and the movie around him operates on a noticeably dimmer wattage.

“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (2 stars)

A tepid offering from director Mira Nair, about a Pakistani emigrant (Riz Ahmed) who finds success in America as a hotshot at a financial firm — until Sept. 11 happens. The movie’s clumsy in its issue-oriented dialogue, and the main reason to see it is to watch the British hip-hop performer Riz Ahmed, a quick, compact actor who carries every scene. Kate Hudson and Liev Schreiber co-star.

Rating: R, for language, subject matter

Showing: Guild 45th.

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