Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Namesake (2006)

Quick, name a famous actor from India. Even one of Indian descent. Still thinking? Me too. My guess is that that is why Mira Nair recruited Kal Penn (Kumar from “Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle”) to star in the screen incarnation of the book, “The Namesake.” Maybe star isn’t the right word; sulk is more like it. Penn may have lent this film the benefit of a semi-recognizable lead, but his wooden-Indian performance sucks the life out of the story. That leaves Indian actors Irfan Khan and Tabu to do the actual acting. They do so with the grace of true professionals, but even their nuanced performances can’t justify this drag of a film.

It won’t take long to outline the plot of “The Namesake,” since there is almost no story here at all. The film follows the lives of Ashoke (Irfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu) Ganguli, a couple of Bengali Indians who immigrate to New York. They have a couple of kids, buy a house in the suburbs, and struggle with being outsiders in America and missing their families in India. Their kids Gogol (Kal Penn) and Sonia (Sahira Nair) are American-born and typically American, but they finally come to accept their East Indian heritage. There, I just ruined the plot for you, because that is basically all that happens. There is some nonsense built up about how Gogol is named for his dad’s favorite Russian author (thus the title of the film), but when they finally reveal why the name is so important to Ashoke, it is quite anticlimactic.

This is the kind of movie that critics love, and audiences hate. Critics will describe “The Namesake” as being “a heartfelt tale of alienation and loss,” or “the truest story yet about the immigrant experience.” The problem is that as far as I am concerned there is no tale or story here. I would have settled even for some painfully naturalistic tale of woe. Instead this film just follows for a few decades the very straightforward lives of an immigrant family. The politically correct thing would be to laud this as a great artistic achievement, but the truth is that I was bored to tears. This movie seems to think it is the first to cover this ground. Here are some examples of supposedly watershed moments from “The Namesake”: Gogol’s aunt tells him to go to college and have all the fun he wants, but marry an Indian girl. Gogol has always ignored his Indian heritage, but when there is a family crisis, he learns to embrace it. Ashima and Ashoke aren’t sure what to do with themselves once their kids are out of the house. This self-congratulatory little film presents this stuff as if we have never seen it before.

If “The Namesake” sounds like your idea of a good way to spend two hours, then have at it. Just don’t come crying to me.

1 star.

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