Namesake, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/17/07 00:31:18

"Not what I expected, and a bit better."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

In an era of previews that give every event in the film away, the promos for "The Namesake" have been pleasantly deceptive. To see the advertising, one would think that the film centers around Kal Penn's character, and how his and his parents don't see eye to eye about his unusual name or white girlfriend. That's there, but it's only part of the movie, and the preview cuts pieces from opposite ends of the film together to give the story a very different shape.

Indeed, Penn's Gogol Ganguli isn't even born until about a half-hour into the movie, and isn't grown until nearly halfway through. The first scene introduces us to his father, Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan), who is wiling away a long train ride by reading a book by Nikolai Gogol as the guy in the next seat tells him he should see the world in person, rather than through books. There's a loud noise, a glimpse of a recuperating Ashoke, and then we meet Ashima (Tabu), whose parents are arranging a marriage between the two. They come to New York, and though it's a difficult adjustment for Ashima, they do well for themselves, moving to the suburbs where they raise two children, Gogol and Sonia (Sahira Nair). The kids are thoroughly assimilated Americans, and Gogol especially chafes at his odd name and family traditions. After finishing college, he tends to spend more time with the family of his girlfriend Maxine (Jacinda Barrett) than his own. They, of course, have found a nice Bengali girl (Zuleikha Robinson) for him.

The first half of the movie belongs to Khan and Tabu, both popular actors in India but nearly unknown in the United States. It's intriguing to watch them get used to each other and their new country in the first half-hour, as the color and beauty of their wedding ceremony serves as a sharp contrast to wintry New York. The way they grow closer out of familiarity and raising children together is understated yet beautiful, from the way Ashima appears stiff the first time Ashoke touches her to how they can't conceive of being separated the first time he leaves her for any great length of time, over twenty-five years later. Both actors play the characters from start to end, with aging accompanied by very good make-up jobs. Tabu's performance is especially strong at the center of the film; Ashima does many of the things such a character is expected to do without becoming a cliché, and there's a very real balance between her curiosity about America and her nervousness at confronting it. I like how she never quite seems to embrace her new life, seeming much more at ease on her back to India. Khan is very good, too, aging more visibly over the course of the film, showing Ashoke as sometimes frustrated that he doesn't quite seem to bond with his son as he'd like to, but almost always flawless in his scenes with Tabu.

The next generation only gets half as much time to make an impression, but Kal Penn, at least, rises to the challenge. The writers make Gogol prickly and often selfish, prone to overreacting even when his heart is in the right place. Penn gets multiple opportunities to break down in disappointment and regret, and he makes the most of it, capturing all of Gogol's various traits and quirks without a hitch. It's not a completely dour performance; there's a fun chemistry with Sahira Nair as his sister, for instance, and a scene with Zuleikha Robinson had the folks in the audience who spoke Bengali laughing even harder than the rest of us, which was pretty hard. Robinson and Jacinda Barrett make for enjoyable contrasts, with Barrett's Maxine being touchy-feely while Robinson's Mosushumi has a more sophisticated vibe.

Penn has a great scene in one of the India sequences where a trip to the Taj Mahal inspires Gogol to be an architect. It's almost wordless, as director Mira Nair and her camera crew spend a lot of time focusing on the incredible detail of the monument, choosing angles and sights that haven't been used a million times before. Nair's always had an eye for this sort of beauty, and it's not limited to colorful weddings or architectural marvels: Simple things, like a suspended drying rack always filled with dishes, made the Gangulis' house feel vibrant and alive, especially when compared to the empty apartment Ashoke inhabits during his time as a visiting lecturer in Cleveland.

The film's biggest hurdle is the script, which must have been a challenge. Gogol's name is a literary reference, which may have worked a little better in Jhumpa Lahiri's original novel than in Sooni Taraporevala's screenplay. The nature and style of Nikolai Gogol's writing is obviously an important element, but there's not much opportunity to get that across to an audience of moviegoers less likely to be familiar with it than those who read the book. Having Gogol not really appear as an active character until about midway through the movie has an odd effect, too - it splits the movie into clear halves, but Gogol's story is never able to fully take control; Ashoke and Ashima are still strong presenses, keeping the son from being the focus.

In many ways, though, I'm okay with that. I've always loved stories of the immigrant experience, though I'm not sure whether it's in spite of or because of living my whole life along a hundred and fifty mile stretch of road. The Gangulis' story takes them halfway around the world, but demonstrates that the idea of home transcends geography, and I find that fascinating.

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