Editor's note: This article may contain spoilers.
(CNN) -- The timing couldn't be any better, or worse, for Mira Nair's film of Mohsin Hamid's novel, a sympathetic portrait of a gifted, intelligent young Pakistani whose love affair with the American dream ends in disenchantment, mistrust and violence.
This would have been a provocative movie to release at any time since 9/11, but especially so in the immediate aftermath of the Boston bombings. Still, if we're to come to any understanding of the terrorist mentality, movies are a relatively safe and responsible place to start looking.
In the opening scenes, the CIA responds to the kidnapping of a European academic in Lahore, Pakistan. A U.S. journalist who is also an undercover operative for the agency (Liev Schreiber) is sent to interview one of the professor's colleagues, a local whose classes are reported to be stirring up young Muslims and who is a known associate of jihadists. Changez (Riz Ahmed) agrees to talk, but only if the American promises to hear him out and get the full story.
Changez, it's not pronounced like the David Bowie song, but it could easily be read that way, starts out as if he means to become one of Tom Wolfe's "Masters of the Universe," a Princeton business grad whose ruthlessness puts him on the fast track at Underwood Sampson, a Wall Street valuations firm. He even dates the chairman's daughter (Kate Hudson, valiantly trying to find roots for an elusive character).
The business saga is entertaining in a snappy, sub-Oliver Stone finger-wagging vein -- Kiefer Sutherland is in strong form as his steely mentor -- but things sour for Changez when the World Trade Center comes down. Suddenly the up-and-coming executive is being strip-searched at airports and advised to shave his beard. He's treated like an alien and comes to feel like one. It forces him to rethink his own identity, his heritage and spiritual values and for the first time he questions the profit-motive that has driven his success.
The film's twin-track structure doesn't really work: the lengthy reminiscences of the disenchanted capitalist completely overwhelm the present tense against-the-clock hostage drama. Is Changez playing for time, to aid his al-Qaeda buddies? Nair doesn't seem interested in fleshing out that suggestion, and melodramatic scenes with Martin Donovan as the CIA field chief eavesdropping on the conversation fall well below the authenticity of "Zero Dark Thirty."
Still, the exchanges between Schreiber and Ahmed -- an intense, edgy British actor some may recognize from the black comedy "Four Lions" and Michael Winterbottom's "Trishna" -- do shed some light on the 21st century's most volatile culture clash.
In the starkest of these, Changez confesses that his first reaction to the planes hitting the towers was... pleasure.
It's a brave acknowledgment of an unspeakable emotion, a moment that will repel many in the audience just as clearly as it disgusts Schreiber, but which is worth hearing not because it's provocative, but because it rings true.
There are hard shards of brutal honesty dispersed elsewhere too. When Changez and his American girlfriend first make love, she stops; she's still mourning the love of her life. "Pretend I'm him," he urges, an impulse that doesn't just speak to the male's desire, but also to the immigrant's need to fit in. And then, later, the other side of the equation, when, teaching in Lahore, he challenges his students to articulate what a "Pakistan Dream" might look like...?
Too prescriptive and too novelistic to fully come to life, at least "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" doesn't demean its characters or its audience. It's a dogged, thoughtful and well-acted movie that might have been more effective if it kept a narrower focus.