Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Namesake: good as a movie; better as a novel.

The Namesake is one of those films that you wish were better than it is. It tries to do too much, when its best moments arise from graceful simplicity. I was expecting a pretty simple family movie with content specific to Indian culture - and also some hubbub about a name - and that's basically what I got. The film concerns a Bengali Indian couple who come to New York and have a son and daughter. The son, named Gogol after his father's favorite author, has his name changed to Nikil before college, and must navigate the travails of being a second-generation immigrant at odds with his heritage. Romance, awkwardness, and much family drama ensue.

First off, let me say that I generally liked the film, but I just couldn't get over some obvious lapses in storytelling. This is yet another case of a likely very good novel (I haven't read the book) being made into a merely "decent" film, and though it was still marginally better than this year's Bridge to Terabithia (another case in point), I must say I was a bit disappointed.

Negatives first:

The film took too long to get going. All the stuff that happens in the beginning is much more interesting in retrospect than when we actually see it at the start of the film, and I don't think it was necessary to get into such detail with everything that happened before Gogol was born. Gogol (and Kal Penn's performance) are the audience's entrypoint into the film - it's mostly HIS story - but he doesn't arrive until a good 30 minutes in. I was getting very bored right before Kal Penn's arrival. And while this kind of "dead" opening stretch can work to an extent (for example, the lead-up to Reese Witherspoon's entrance in Walk the Line and the jolt of life that comes with her), I don't think it made sense here. The parents just weren't fleshed out enough in the opening scenes for me to care (or even really know) what was happening, and then those scenes went on far too long.

Also, there were occasional sequences all throughout the film that didn't seem connected, or simply weren't covered in enough depth. The head-shaving interlude, for example. Of course, this may have been less problematic for viewers better versed in Indian culture,
but I think the real culprit here is the fact that the film was based on a novel, and was not sufficiently reimagined for the screen. It's usually obvious when a film was based on a novel, because there are usually sequences that clearly would've worked better in a novel. A novel's rhythms are very different than a film's. There's much more room for certain kinds of details, and much less demand for a specific kind of pacing. That allows novels to work with long, episodic narratives that just don't work as well on film. I think I'd heard at some point that this film was based on a book, but I'd actually forgotten that when I was watching it... at least until a little ways in, when I suddenly thought, "oh right... it is. I'm sure The Namesake was a great book, too, but it seems to have worked better as a book than as a movie.

Finally, there was just a general lack of coherence to the film that bothered me throughout. I realize that's a vague comment, a result of my own inarticulateless, but that doesn't diminish its validity. The acting's all quite good, and the story is strong, but the film just never quite hits a stride. It comes close at times, and is quite enjoyable at times, but it just never seems to know what it wants to be, other than a film of a novel. This is most likely director Nair's fault. I have not seen either of her other high-profile films (the acclaimed Monsoon Wedding or the dismissed Vanity Fair), but this one doesn't give me a high opinion of her as a filmmaker. Though the film works with powerful themes, the execution is pretty pedestrain, as these things go.

Alright, now for the positives:

As I said, the acting is all quite good. The two standouts, for me, were Kal Penn, as Gogol Ganguli, and Irfan Khan as his father Ashoke. One of the many frustrations for me as a viewer was trying to figure out who was the true protagonist, Ashoke or Gogol. The film was advertised as a story about a young man who didn't like his name, but Ashoke is the central character in many ways. One problem is that I think Ashoke's character (and Khan's performance) become much more interesting from the perspective of his son Gogol (who I think is meant to be the true lead). This is why I think the whole first 30 minutes or so were unnecessary, or at least should've been seen in some sort of flashback. As it is, Gogol is absent the first quarter of the film and Ashoke is absent the last quarter, leaving the viewer without a clear thru-line. I think the film would've been very well served in this case if the director had just stuck to the perspective of one character throughout. But anyway... POSITIVES.

Kal Penn is very good as Gogol. When he enters, it's like a new film. Compelling as Khan's performance is, Ashoke still reads as the weary father figure even when he's seen as a young man, which is why Penn's youthful charisma is such a breath of fresh air. The film was given new life when he arrived (duh, he's the lead), and I'm tempted to say he was best in show, though by the end, Khan is revealed as a true standout. I never saw Harold and Kumar, so I didn't really have any idea of who Penn was until now, but he puts in a very good performance, deftly navigating the trajectory from teendom to adulthood, and I think he's got the charisma to be a real star. I'll be watching his career from here on out.

The rest of the actors fill out their roles admirably, and the film is at its best when it just sits back and lets moments of truth happen onscreen. There are plenty of admirable scenes between parents, children, siblings and lovers, and the film sometimes achieves a graceful simplicity in its writing and acting. It was a pleasant surprise to see Brooke Smith (of Silence of the Lambs fame) in a random supporting role as a friend of Ashoke's wife, Ashima. And Gogol's two love interests, one white, on Bengali, were well played and a joy to watch as well.

Unfortunately, they were all saddled with a screenplay that was felt at once too broad and too condensed. Though there were several good scenes, and a strong story arc, there was too much happening and too much ground to cover, and not enough subtlely and cohesion in the script. Certain characters were left peripheral when I wanted to know more about them (like Gogol's sister Sonia), and as previously mentioned, the films does not commit to one clear protagonist among the three main characters (Gogol, Ashoke, and Ashima).

That said, I generally enjoyed the film (and it made me sort of want to read the novel). It offers a bountiful display of beautiful Bengali culture (including some wonderful music and scenery), along with some compelling human drama. Also, one interesting thing I noticed (totally random) is that none of the actors were superhumanly beautiful. Most were good-looking enough, but all looked distinctly like normal people. I found myself simultaneously refreshed and disappointed (is is why we have gorgeous movie stars?). Anyway, the highlight of the whole film for me was the acting by Kal Penn and Irfan Khan, who give beautiful portrayals of a conflicted young adult and a wise immigrant father, respectively. It would've been nice if the whole film had been as good as those two. As it is, it's an unfocused but overall worthwhile drama.

Verdict: "Not a bad film, but obviously a better book. Worth seeing, if you don't care to read it."

(DISCLAMOR: As I said, I have not actually read the book, so my comments about its quality may be way off the mark. I don't really know how good the book is. But that's not the point. The point is that the structure of the film gives away its origins as a novel far too easily, and even if it's better than the source material, that's never a good thing for a film to do. As it is, I'd bet money that the novel is better. It'd never have been made into a film if it weren't good.)

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