Aside from a dutiful admiration and respect for high-quality craftsmanship I get when standing before the lesser paintings of a master or listening to the one undeniable single of an otherwise anonymous band, I didn't feel a thing while watching Mira Nair's film adaptation of The Namesake, Jumpa Lahiri's expansive novel about three decades in the life of a Bengali family in New York and Calcutta, even though it is not a waste of time and has more than enough of everything I usually hope for in a movie.
For starters, The Namesake is a movie of great specificity in its actors; from Mississippi Masala to Vanity Fair, Nair's affection for the beauty and variety of human bodies remains erotic and exciting. The physical contrast between trim, gentle, unobtrusive Ashoke (Irfan Khan) and his voluptuous, shy, arranged-marriage bride Ashima (Tabu) reflects their initial emotional discomfort, yet this contrast adds tension and sexiness when Nair shows us their first fumbling, midnight gropes toward physical affection. As the couple's affections for each other deepen and mellow, their physiques eventually complete each other, as seen best in one calm, clever scene when they walk arm and arm, discussing the happy accident of their partnership.
Ashoke and Ashima's uncomfortable, distracted oldest son Gogol (Kal Penn) is not as fortunate in finding a compatible mate as he wrestles with his bicultural heritage. Penn, who was so engaging in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, is a shifty, credible dramatic presence whose evolution and maturation comprise much of the second half of the film. Gogol's frustration with his strange name symbolizes his larger ambivalence toward his Bengali background, and his embrace and rejection of his parents' heritage catapults him from a bland, upper-class white-chick safety net named Maxine (Jacinda Barrett) into the arms of an intelligent, naughty, distant Indian girl named Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson), who sexes him up and uses him like a club to beat back memories of her own disastrous traditional marriage.
The symbolic order of The Namesake is deliberate and novelistic throughout; shoes and bridges emerge as signs of travel, adventure, and tradition. And when these traditions don't mix, Nair lingers over moments of cultural clumsiness, particularly in a long sequence when Gogol takes Maxine home. Nair is also intelligent enough to juxtapose the professional, cluttered busyness of New York with the teeming chaos of Calcutta while showing how both worlds appeal to Gogol.
Where India has the Taj Mahal, though, America has the airport and the pre-furnished apartment. During several key apartment scenes, the loneliness, disorientation, and alienation of Gogol and his family are most clearly felt; it's as though they all suddenly find themselves stuck not just in a rented room but in a country whose greatest promise is little more than moneyed aimlessness. Within those spaces, the director's sense of sorrow about the sacrifices made when forging one's identity is clearest; within those spaces, I almost felt something strong about The Namesake.
Opening Friday, March 30th
Studio on the Square