Review: The Namesake

In "The Namesake" (IMDb listing) actor Kal Penn goes from a disturbingly unfunny comedic presence to a solid dramatic one. It isn't a perfect performance, but this isn't a perfect film. "Namesake" is rough around the edges, but radiates a poignancy that's impossible to shake.

Stepping into an arranged marriage, Ashima (Bollywood superstar Tabu) follows her husband Ashoke (Irfan Kahn) from India to New York City , where she's overwhelmed by the loss of traditions and cultural personality, clinging to her husband for guidance and love. From their marriage comes Gogol (Kal Penn), who grows up caught between the heritage of his family and the fast lane of life in America. When tragedy snaps Gogol to attention, he searches his complicated life to discover what's most important to him and his family.

In adapting Jhumpa Lahiri's popular novel, writer Sooni Taraporevala has attempted to strip down the epic nature of Ashima and Askoke's familial journey and conform it to fit the needs of a two-hour film. "Namesake" is a busy picture, grabbing themes and emotional speeds with both hands, trying to depict tangled cultural demands that have been transported thousands of miles from their core.

Director Mira Nair has the unlucky job of trying to scoop up the fragments of narrative and create something meaningful out of the parts. She succeeds, if only because this is an accomplished filmmaker who leads with her heart. "Namesake" demands a director who can bring out the moods of the characters and the colors of the film; to embrace the tragedy and show clearly how troubling a process adjustment can be.

For two acts, Nair has total control of her picture. Nair blends the subplots delicately, keeping the audience invested in these people through observations of their silence. "Namesake" touched me deeply, especially in Ashima's journey from her home to America, registered with pinpoint accuracy in Tabu's emotive performance. Avoiding sentimentality, Tabu (a phenomenal actress) demonstrates the fear and love in Ashima's actions without overplaying her hand.

Penn's Gogol is a much more conflicted character, and it's wonderful to see the actor not reaching for a laugh for once in his tainted career. Gogol has to register to the audience as a person comfortable with his own life, yet nagged by the influence of his parents, who want their son to follow in their footsteps but understand life in America doesn't always permit that. Penn lays out Gogol's frustrations well, and even when the performance becomes capped by melodrama, it's a nice stab from Penn at a rounded piece of acting.

Once Gogol's distanced life is challenged by tragedy, "Namesake" goes from a softly involving family drama to a complete mess. Nair seems in a fury to tie up Gogol's dramatic arc, and speeds the last 30 minutes up to shoehorn in extensive plot points just to complete Lahiri's story. It doesn't benefit the movie's sense of emotional luxury in the least, with characters ushered in and out without any respect and a constant sensation that the picture is going to end, only to have Nair drag the corpse for another five minutes, and then another five minutes ... it's strange to witness a film commit seppuku like this.

I was mad at "Namesake" for deflating; a flowering tale of custom is harmed by jagged storytelling that derails the sense of calm around the whole endeavor. This is a terrific film, but it sends out the audience in a hurried fashion that betrays what Nair was working so diligently to achieve: a sense of peace.

Filmfodder Grade: B+