Pleasant but shallow in The Namesake

April 1, 2007

Director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) has released another film about the Indian-American experience, this time about Gogol (Harold and Kumars Kal Penn), the son of immigrant parents (Tabu and Irfan Kahn) who struggles with his Indian identity. It is based on a 2004 novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Jhumpa Lahiri, entitled The Namesake.

The movie is about the cycle of life, juxtaposed with the difficulties associated with establishing an identity as an immigrant, and is thus active on both of those levels;

whether or not director Nair can justify her perspective is unclear.

The story is sweet, however it lacks depth, and it suffers from being too neatly tied up. One was not supposed to like the WASPy family with whom Gogol involves himself, seemingly because of their non-Bengali nature;

the story seems unable to compare or identify at all with the New York intellectuals encountered in social settings, yet it is dependent on those few encounters to justify the insularity of the Bengali community and the need for balance in Gogols experience. The movies climax (however weak) is an alleged freedom, Gogols from his identity crisis, Ashminas (Tabu) from the duties of being a wife. Gogol and Ashmina have apparently been searching for this freedom for the whole movie;

how the viewer is supposed to know this is an entirely different matter. As a whole, the film is unsatisfying in the traditional Hollywood sensethere are no clearly demarcated arcs, and the chronology of life and death yields no strong emotions. Sympathy for the characters is hard to achieve, and while Gogol is likeable, roughly, he is not loveable because he is so passive. The only moment of emotional intensity is Ashminas reaction to the death of her husband, and even that seems weak in hindsight.

Time is another issue in the film;

there are frequent, large jumps, though the characters never age. Ashmina, for example, is initially married at age 15 or so;

by the end of the film, she is 45, yet she has not aged at all the entire time. Gogol goes to college for at least 7 years;

we never see anything of the college campus. Gogols sister (Sahira Nair) mysteriously meets a man;

she is a small player in the film, and bizarrely trashy when she does appear, however we are given no back story of her life. She is irrelevant, yet persistently present.

The film also suffers from irritating, if not wholly bad, cinematography. It is based wholly on the rule of thirds, and is nearly mathematical in its precision. The cinematographer, Frederick Elmes, was also fascinated with the balance of the fore, middle and background, however he seemed incapable of using more than one level of perspective at a timeif there was action in the foreground, the background was fuzzy and the mid-ground was entirely inactive. Elmes technique of shooting conversation was equally annoying, usually featuring the hairline or left cheekbone of the person being talked to on the edge of a frame while featuring the voice over of the person speaking, and then swapping. Elmes consistently used physical barriers and over-used film school metaphors, as well as digital manipulation to evoke emotions he felt were underplayed and/or those he felt lacked emphasis.

Altogether the film was pleasant, but it does not deserve any awards. It is not a thinking movie and is inherently flawed. It is occasionally funny and is almost worth spending $9 at Embassy. The film runs at least through the rest of March.

Menu Title