When a director is as humane as Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding), it’s easy to think of her gift as the ”simple” ability to bathe everyone on screen in a glow of understanding. Nair’s work is certainly empathic (and also funny and sexy and rueful), yet watching The Namesake, her moving and marvelous new cross-cultural family saga, I was struck by the nearly sculptural skill with which she expresses that spirit — her arrangement, for instance, of people in a suburban kitchen, so that their intimacy is offset by the way they stare into their cereal bowls, or how a father’s love for his son is conveyed powerfully by his devout refusal to say it.
Based on the best-selling novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake is set in New York and Calcutta over a period of several decades. It’s one of those adaptations that’s so sprawling and episodic and crammed with incident that, at times, you may wish you were reading the novel. The film opens in India in 1974 with a fateful train crash, then leaps ahead three years, when the studious and quizzical Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) meets the young beauty, Ashima (Tabu), it has been arranged for him to wed. (She likes him for his American shoes.) Eager for a new life, he takes her to the U.S., where they have two children and make a home in the New York suburbs. We’re set for a cozy tale of assimilation, but the film then leaps ahead to their son, Gogol (Kal Penn) — named for his father’s favorite author — as a surly, dope-smoking high schooler who couldn’t be more embarrassed by his parents’ doting immigrant ways.
It was bold of Nair to cast Penn, the deadpan comic star of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, in the complex role of Gogol, whose love-hate, push-pull relationship with his heritage forms the spiritual core of the story. Penn turns out to be a fantastic actor. His sexy, cool surface works for the film — Gogol is a Bengali American who knows, righteously, that he’s as homegrown as Mickey Mantle — yet Penn’s eyes are full of fury and desire, and they mirror the film’s primal question: In a country where we can invent ourselves anew, how does family define us?
Penn plays Gogol as a thicket of warring impulses. He’s inspired to be an architect by a visit to the Taj Mahal, yet back in America, he declares his independence by falling for a wealthy blue-blood princess (Jacinda Barrett). Just as the audience is sure that it’s in for the sort of cross-cultural clash that has defined every ethnic-romantic saga from Fiddler on the Roof to Monsoon Wedding, it’s Gogol, spurred by tragedy, who decides to ”stick with his own kind,” only to learn that even that’s not as easy as he thinks. Penn, who has a gift for letting feelings burn through his skin, shows you the conflicts roiling around inside him, and Khan and Tabu, both superstars of Bollywood, turn his parents into figures of touchingly diffident devotion. The Namesake is sometimes too sketchy — you want more of the episodes, never less — yet it’s a movie that will speak to anyone who has ever felt pulled in different directions by his own heart.