Kal Penn, who is most recognized as Kumar from Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, Van Wilder and, hell, even a silent thug in Superman Returns, takes a stab at the dramatic in Mira Nair's The Namesake, a movie about an Indian-American man who has to come to terms with his cultural upbringing and family commitments, despite his recent push to turn his back on everything he knows.
Nair, best known for directing Monsoon Wedding and Vanity Fair, has made another moderately intriguing tale that is good for what it is, but never quite attains that next level she is so longingly trying to reach. Her movies have all been pretty good and offered some incredibly interesting moments, yet they all seem to lack the ability to engage indefinitely. One sign of a great movie is that you are engaged from beginning to end, in some way or another; Nair's movies tend to absolutely engage half the time, and simply exist for the rest.
The Namesake has a nice story and a good set of actors. The movie is about a 20-something Indian-American man named Gogol Ganguli. His parents were both born and raised in India, whereas he has grown up as an American and adopted the American way of life. His girlfriend is white, he rarely sees his parents and after years of torment has decided to change his name from "Gogul" to something a bit less goofy. Of course, as he grows up, his parents observe his progress in a different way, as if he is forsaking his past and theirs. The Namesake looks at the history of how Gogul's parents met, and Gogul's transformation into a man.
Penn does a pretty good job in the lead, and certainly shows that he is capable of doing dramas when the role is right. That being said, neither his character nor story is as interesting as the long flashbacks to the history of his parents. While Penn headlines the movie, the real stars of the film are Irfan Khan and Tabu; they are both fabulous, as is their story. A good chunk of the movie is spent in the past, and this is where Nair really kicks things up a notch. The awkward relationship between the two parents and the dynamic of that relationship are completely intriguing, which is probably why everything else feels so second rate. Unfortunately, much of the "flashbacks" are used in the first half of the movie, which means that the second half isn't nearly as good.
The Namesake is a good movie with some very interesting moments and stories. Unfortunately, the movie slowly loses its impact as it goes along, and ultimately, The Namesake comes out being an average drama, nothing more. Recommended for those who have an interest in Indian culture, but some tightening and trimming of the story could have made this movie a real contender.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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