One day, someone will have to accept being named after Judge Joel Pearce.
Two Worlds. One Journey.
Based on the novel of the same name, The Namesake follows the struggles and victories of two generations in an Indian immigrant family that moves to New York. Ashoke (Irfan Khan, The Warrior) marries Ashima (Tabu) in India, and takes her back with him to New York. She finds this a lonely life, but gradually accepts it as she adjusts to life with her two children. Gogol (Kal Penn, Van Wilder 2) is their son, who never truly accepts that he has been named after the insane Russian author. As he struggles to escape his own heritage, his parents continue the struggle not to lose their own.
Novel adaptations are probably the greatest resource in the history of film. Every year, dozens of directors create visual interpretations of pre-existing novels. Some of them are excellent, of course, but the vast majority fails to live up to their namesakes. While I haven't read the best-selling novel that its based on, The Namesake feels a bit like the Reader's Digest condensed version of the story. The story of two generations of a family is the stuff of sprawling miniseries, and two hours is simply not long enough to tell this story.
At the center of this problem is the two equal protagonists. We spend the first half of the film with Ashima, as she struggles with her new life in America. The second half covers Gogol's coming-of-age, and his gradual acceptance of his Indian background. Either one of these would have made a great movie, as both of the characters show great potential, but the sheer plottiness of the film keeps the fast-forward button pressed firmly. Most scenes in the film last about 30 seconds, before we are whipped off into another time and place. We never get a chance to get to know the characters as much as we would like to.
When the small details are stripped out of a story, all that's left is the empty shell of a story, and the skeletons of the characters. In the case of The Namesake, it means that these characters can never escape the realm of stereotype, and the film simply echoes the multitude of immigrant stories that have come before it. With more time spent on building characters and experiences, these characters could have easily transcended these conventions. Here, though, Ashanti is only ever the woman that is pulled from her homeland and is never given the chance to fully develop a new life in America. Gogol almost breaks free from being the second-generation immigrant who needs to deal with a dual identity, but the most fascinating moments of the film go by all too quickly. When so much drama is squeezed into such a short running time, its emotional punch is reduced to parody, and by the end we feel that we are watching a soap opera, not a deeply felt human drama.
It's a shame, too, because there's so much potential on display here. Tatu is stunning, easily handling a role that requires her to cover twenty years of a character's life. Her gradual adoption of English alone is an impressive feat. Kal Penn is the other pleasant surprise here, as he shows that he has more than enough acting chops to handle anything his career will throw at him. The large supporting cast is equally pleasing, filling out rich backdrops in both Calcutta and New York. The dialogue rings true, and there are some undeniably moving moments. Spread out over about four hours, The Namesake could have been placed alongside the best melodramas ever made. At the end, though, it's really only a sampler plate: we get enough to know that we like it, but not enough to feel satisfied.
I can say little about the transfer, as I only received a highly compressed screening version. From what I can tell, the video transfer on the finished product will be a rush of vivid color, but I don't want to make any promises. The sound transfer is excellent, though, with clear dialogue in a front-centered Dolby Digital 5.1 track. There are several special features on the disc, including a commentary with director Mira Nair (Vanity Fair). It's a great track, and Nair covers a myriad of topics as she chatters joyfully about the production. There are some deleted scenes as well, though they add little to help the problem. We also get a production featurette, in the form of a master class with a graduate film class. It's an interesting feature, though, both intimate and heartfelt. The disc is rounded out with a Kal Penn featurette, as well as a music video.
If you are a fan of the book, my guess is that you will be generally satisfied with The Namesake. After all, it has the kind of passion and respect needed to make a good adaptation. You will, of course, quickly notice that important things are missing. For the rest of us, it can only offer a hint at what the book is—and what this film could have been. If Mira Nair ever returns to this topic, though, she could have a real winner on her hands.
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