Kal Penn's decision to temporarily give up his partying ways and play it straight pays off with The Namesake, even if director Mira Nair's heartfelt multigenerational soap opera outstays its welcome.
What's in a name? For Mira Nair, the director of Monsoon Wedding and Mississippi Masala, it's everything. With her adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's best-selling novel, Nair employs the name given to the American-born son of Bengali parents as a metaphor for the clash between cultural heritage and cultural assimilation. As The Namesake reveals, Bengali tradition requires a child to possess both a "good name," for formal purposes, and a "pet name," for use by family and friends. Gogol Ganguli (Kal Penn) doesn't think too highly of his father's decision to confer upon him a "pet name" in honor of his favorite author, Nikolai Gogol. "Of all the freakin' Russian writers in the world, why did you have to name me after the weirdest?," he angrily asks his mother (Bollywood sensation Tabu) and father (Irrfan Khan). But Gogol cannot come to understand or appreciate what his name really means to his fatheror to his future in his native New Yorkuntil he embraces his Indian roots. And that means Gogol must not only go out of his way to learn why his father left India for America, but to face the same hardships and heartaches that every manregardless of their nationalitymust face during his life.
For years, Penn's tried to make us laugh by shattering Indian stereotypes with such comedies as Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and the Van Wilder films. But The Namesake, which marks his debut as a dramatic lead, represents an invaluable opportunity for him to paint a more truthful portrait of how first-generation Indian Americans are torn between family traditions and life in their parents' adopted homeland. After an awkward start, in which he almost plays a teenage Gogol as a younger version of that pothead Kumar, Penn quickly finds his confidence. He captures the emotional turmoil that his conflicted character endures as reaches for the right balance between his pursuit of the American dream and his acceptance of his Bengali heritage. Penn's honesty and deep affection for Gogol allows him to emerge as an empathetic figure, especially for those born to immigrant parents and have experiencedor are experiencingwhat Gogol goes through. As Gogol's father Ashoke, Irrfan Khan is patience personified. Ashoke clearly wants his son to appreciate what it means to be Bengali, but Khan never comes across as overbearing or demanding. It's the relationship between father and son that gives The Namesake its heart and soul. But to discount Tabu's contribution, as Gogol's mother Ashima, would be criminal. Ashima could have been your run-of-the-mill overprotective mother and subservient wife, but Tabu blesses her with a quiet strength and resolve that proves invaluable when the family suffers a great loss. As for the other women in Gogol's life, Jacinda Barrett offers little as Gogol's token WASP girlfriend, but Rome's Zuleikha Robinson crackles with sexuality as Gogol's adventurous but ultimately unsatisfied wife.
To say that Mira Nair was out of her element directing the ill-fated Vanity Fair is unjust. After all, Monsoon Wedding was set in contemporary India, but it had all the feel and flair of a colorful and lavish 19th-century costume romance. But Nair seems at home in the present rather than in the past, possessing more of an affinity for characters who are flawed but fundamentally good, as opposed to cold and calculated like in Vanity Fair. Born in India, and educated at Harvard University, Nair clearly has a greater appreciation than her peers of The Namesake's exploration of cultural heritage vs. cultural assimilation. That's evident in the delicate manner in which she presents Gogol's transformation from a sullen and uninterested teenager to a man willing to accept his family's past as he plans for his future. She also handles Gogol's complicated relationships with his familyespecially with his fatherwith clarity, purpose and warmth. Unfortunately, Nair's pacing is too slow and too deliberate. It certainly doesn't help that the death of a major character casts a pall over the rest of The Namesake. This loss should have provided Nair with the impetus to swiftly wrap up the proceedings, but she drags things out much longer than necessary, and you're left with the impression that Gogol is being needlessly put through the wringer. Still, The Namesake manages to be a thoughtful examination of a man struggling to straddle two different cultures. If only Gogol's journey of self-discovery wasn't so long and drawn out.
Hollywood.com rated this film 2 1/2 stars.