What's in a name? That's the question that floats through Mira Nair's The Namesake, even drifting its way into the title. Based on Jhumpa Lahiri's best-selling novel, the movie is one of those multi-generational sagas that trace a family's migration from a foreign land to the so-called Land of Opportunity. And about the only thing linking these particular generations, once the family has assimilated to American life, is its last name. Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu) Ganguli moved to the United States from India in the 1970s, after their wedding. And although their marriage was an arranged one, they're able to find their way into each other's heart while raising a family in a New York suburb. But their son, Gogol (Kal Penn), doesn't know India from Indiana. He has no divided loyalties. He's American through and through. And he can't understand why his parents named him Gogol, of all things.
The explanation, which involves the Russian author Nikolai Gogol, is always there for the asking. But Gogol Ganguli, who heads off to Yale and winds up with the perfect WASP girlfriend (Jacinda Barrett, channeling Nicole Kidman), will take his time getting around to it. Meanwhile, Nair lays before us a veritable feast of Bengali life, allowing us to savor the Gangulis' story one course at a time. Back in Calcutta, we watch Ashoke and Ashima meet for the first time, a family affair in which the beautiful Ashima, before entering the room, slips her feet into Ashoke's Western-made shoes, which have been left next to the door. It's a lovely moment, a symbol for the next portion of her life. And the two of them make a strangely appealing couple, their relationship nearly devoid of the conflicts that usually fuel such stories. Their conflicts, it turns out, are with their children, who wilt in the heat during a summer vacation on the subcontinent.
Penn, who brought a whole new flavor to stoner comedies in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, turns out to have acting chops that weren't called for in that particular opus. And he does a nice job of highlighting the anger ' and the intelligence ' that's bubbling beneath the surface of Gogol's slacker-dude exterior. The movie takes us through Gogol's twenties, when the WASP girlfriend gets traded in for a nice ' well, not that nice ' Bengali girl (Zuleikha Robinson). And it's as full a portrait as we're likely to get of an ABCD: an American-Born Confused Desi. The movie itself is a rich, full portrait of a family that finds itself straddling two cultures, the generations staring at each other across a widening, then narrowing, gap. And Nair handles it all like a master. There's some choppiness near the end. Otherwise, The Namesake negotiates the years like stones placed across a vast lake.