The Namesake, Mira Nair’s lovingly detailed adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s best-selling novel, suffers at times from a problem not uncommon to literary adaptations: It’s so courteously deferential to its source that it never really comes alive as a movie. Lahiri’s novel is multigenerational and episodic, skittering deftly among different points of view, shaped more by mood and character than by incident. But what’s intimate and subtle on the page can feel shapeless onscreen. Even so, Nair has a gift for directing actors and a feeling for the immigrant milieu of the novel that make The Namesake (Fox Searchlight) a rich, if not completely satisfying, pleasure.
After an opening scene on a train whose significance becomes clear only later, the film begins with an arranged marriage between Ashoke Ganguli (Irrfan Khan), a young Bengali scientist studying in New York, and Ashima (Tabu), the beautiful daughter of a Calcutta family. After their first child is born, the couple await a letter from his maternal grandmother selecting his “good name”—but the letter from India never arrives, and the boy (played from high-school age onward by Kal Penn) becomes known by his “pet name,” Gogol. This name, which his father bestowed in honor of the Russian writer, becomes Gogol’s pet obsession. As he grows into a thoroughly American adolescent, he complains to his friends—between hits of pot—about the weird moniker that’s preventing him from getting laid. When he moves away from home, Gogol switches to his “good” name, Nikhil, easily Anglicized to Nick.
It’s tough to summarize the movie from there on out, except to say that several decades of life pass in the Ganguli family. People marry, divorce, have children, and die. Large groups of Indian immigrants gather in suburban living rooms to grieve, gossip, eat, and sing. Along the way there are moments of great poignancy, as when Ashoke tries to explain the name’s significance to his teenage son—if only he could get him to turn down that Pearl Jam song.
In order to make the temporal leaps the story requires, the movie contracts and expands like an accordion. Visiting the Taj Mahal with his family as an adolescent, Gogol rushes over to his parents and blurts, “I’m going to be an architect!” Before you have time to chuckle at his youthful enthusiasm, there he is at an architecture firm, already graduated from college and sketching away. Later, Gogol’s affair with a wealthy blond WASP (Jacinda Barrett) comes and goes too quickly for us to know what she was to him besides a non-Indian girlfriend. When he ends up with a brainy Bengali with assimilation issues of her own, she feels more like a plot device than a character (despite a ferocious and funny performance from Zuleikha Robinson).
Thanks to superb performances from Tabu and Khan (both stars of the Indian cinema), the scenes between Ashoke and Ashima shimmer with tenderness and nuance—especially early in the film, as the two shy newlyweds learn to make love, do laundry, and sprinkle Rice Krispies with curry powder in this strange, cold land where they know no one but each other. Kal Penn, the co-star of the stoner-buddy classic Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (in its way, an equally compelling meditation on the immigrant experience) has big, expressive features and an appealingly goofy manner. He gives Gogol an irreverent humor that the book’s protagonist lacked. But in the scenes that call for him to tap into adult reserves of grief and loss, Penn is no match for two actors as seasoned and subtle as Tabu and Khan. In a way, though, this discrepancy suits the movie’s purposes: The old-world grace of the Indian actors provides a gentle counterpoint to the energy of the Indian-American kid still trying to find his way home from the burger joint.