Born in America to emigrés from Calcutta, Gogol is a protagonist who endures years of teenage alienation in The Namesake, a film adapted from the 2003 bestseller by Jhumpa Lahiri. Mira Nair's memorable, albeit flawed, new feature includes many entertaining sequences of the kid doing whatever it takes to fit in with his pot-smoking peers. That's especially difficult when parents who otherwise cling to their own ancient traditions have given him the moniker of a gloomy early-19th-century Russian author.
Gogol Ganguli is played to perfection by Kal Penn, who was funny as a stoner on an urgent burger quest in 2004's Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and frightening as a suburban terrorist wannabe on this season of "24." In Nair's movie, he's a Bengali boy searching for identity, a process that sparks conflict with his father Ashoke (Irfan Khan), an engineering professor, and his mother Ashima (Bollywood star Tabu).
After a 1977 arranged marriage in the old country, the Gangulis have settled in a rundown section of Queens, where they struggle to adjust to alien ways. Ashima faces the biggest learning curve, evident when she washes Ashoke's wool sweater in hot water at a neighborhood laundromat. They later prosper and relocate to an upscale Westchester community.
By then, the couple also has a daughter (Sahira Nair). But the saga primarily focuses on Gogol, who eventually decides to call himself Nik. He never quite finds common ground with Ashoke before graduating from high school, attending Yale, becoming a Manhattan architect, and hooking up with Maxine (Jacinda Barrett), a wealthy blonde WASP.
At this point in the film, an interesting collision of cultures and generations is disrupted by an intrusive shout-out to the quirky nobility of people from the Indian subcontinent. Although Maxine is sweetly devoted to Gogol/Nik, Nair stacks the deck against her. At a family gathering, relatives speaking a language foreign to the New York girl's ears mock her ignorance of their customs. Seemingly, the audience is supposed to laugh along with the subtitles.
Before you can say, "stick to your own kind," Gogol breaks up with Maxine when a tragedy propels him into the arms of the ancestral homeland he previously ridiculed. These scenes are riveting, in large part thanks to Frederick Elmes' sumptuous cinematography.
After returning to the U.S., Gogol is introduced to Moushimi (Zuleikha Robinson), a sexy young Bengali woman with similar assimilation issues and a penchant for Paris. The Ganguli clan approves of their relationship, which culminates in elaborate nuptials that do not necessarily spell happiness.
Nair (Monsoon Wedding, 2001) approaches this plethora of rich material with an apparent desire to please the crowd, often upsetting the balance between dramatic tension and comic relief. Luckily, Penn delivers the lighter moments with great skill. He's also at ease conveying the necessary Namesake angst.
In fact, the cast as a whole excels. Khan and Tabu are remarkable in complex roles. Viewers may find themselves shifting allegiances, seeing them alternately as obdurate or wise, hopelessly outdated or remarkably relevant. And Robinson's sizzling performance practically leaps from the screen.
Nair co-wrote the script with Sooni Taraporevala, her collaborator on Salaam Bombay! (1988) and Mississippi Masala (1991). They have compressed several decades covered in the novel by Lahiri - who won a Pulitzer Prize for her 1999 story collection, The Interpreter of Maladies - into a two-hour narrative that occasionally feels rushed.
The joys and sorrows of everyday life in The Namesake are illuminated by the flashback to a horrific 1974 train crash in which Ashoke is seriously injured. His misfortune leads him to a significant turning point.
Just before the accident unfolds in slow motion, he's reading a story by Nikolai Gogol. This literary recollection provides the elusive touchstone for all the other events in an engaging motion picture that should have been better.