Tuesday, December 18, 2007
It used to be that movies suffered when they veered too far away from the books on which they were based; now, if anything, the problem seems to be an excess of fidelity. Case in point is The Namesake, Mira Nair's adaptation of the popular novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. I avoided the film on its theatrical release last summer -- mainly because I was scheduled to teach the novel as part of a freshman orientation-week class and didn't want the movie version to influence someone as highly susceptible as me -- and I probably wouldn't have caught up with it on DVD had the movie not been the recipient of surprisingly kind reviews from normally cutthroat critics who must have switched their meds.
For those who haven't read Lahiri's novel, The Namesake follows two generations of Bengali immigrants: the first, a married couple newly arrived from India who struggle to maintain their traditions; and the second, their American-born son, who bridles against them. Nair's film depicts this clash of cultures faithfully, as well as the central storyline involving the son's unconventional name of Gogol (i.e., the 19th-century Russian author of The Overcoat, a book that figures mightily in The Namesake.) As played by Kal Penn, the Gogol of the movie is every inch the character of the novel: alienated from his origins; patronizing toward his family; ambitious yet indecisive; open to new experiences (especially romantic ones, such as his relationship with a Caucasian girl from a wealthy liberal family) yet ultimately afraid of change.
The movie errs not with the conception of the character or Penn's performance, but that too much time is spent bringing Gogol to the center of the story. By following Lahiri's linear timeline, Nair gets bogged down in too much early exposition and loses a great deal of narrative momentum. Which is a shame, because there are some intriguing ideas in The Namesake, particularly with how all the common denominators in Gogol's eventual marriage to a fellow Bengali named Moushimi (a vivid turn by Zuleikha Robinson), fail to resolve his problems. Parallel plotting between Gogol's story and his parents' might have brought his character to the forefront and underscored the themes of the story without making it feel as though they'd been crammed in with an ice-cream scoop.
I'm a fan of Nair's previous work, especially the joyous Monsoon Wedding, which addressed similar themes in a more freeflowing, almost ramshackle manner and was all the better for it. The Namesake is a more ambitious movie, and while it feels strange to say this, it needed a director with more technique. How ironic when a fine humanist filmmaker gets all the facts down but misses the poetry.