“The Namesake,” review by Joanna Langfield

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The “arranged marriage” of Mira Nair and Jhumpa Lahiri is an inspired one. Their collaboration to film the best selling novel brings us a profoundly intimate movie that reaches and resonates wide.

With a few changes (why settle the Ganguli family in upper state New York, as opposed to Cambridge?), Nair has chosen to remain predominantly faithful to Lahiri’s history of an assimilated Indian-American family. While we may not get some of the details that fleshed out the book here, the impact is enhanced by Nair’s signature artistry and, naturally, understanding of the whole situation. Few contemporary American directors could so relate to the idea that, just one generation ago, marriages were arranged or appreciate that those transactions could develop into something honest and loving. And that is where Nair makes this story her own. While the written page captures more of the generations’ struggle, Nair gives a real focus on the love story between Ashoke and Ashima, the immigrant bride and groom. Tabu, one of India’s veteran stars, is glorious in this demanding role, growing into a warm gravitas as the years pass around her.. Irrfan Khan takes the previously almost underwritten role of the husband/father and turns him into a sweet, shy, confused and scared man. His efforts to settle into a new marriage, a new job and a new country are bumpy and charming. Yet his bungled concern over the “Americanization” of his only son is frustrating to us, the viewer. Why can he not see his son’s struggle to break away, to find his life in a new world, just as he, himself, had chosen? The truth is that, while Ashoke reads rather stiff and merciless in the novel, in the film, thanks to Nair and Khan, we can’t help but like him and, therefore, feel his own conflict in a more compassionate way.

Still, the crux of this story is the namesake himself, a boy born in America, but whose roots, along with his name, tie him to his ancestry. As Gogol, Kal Penn is a revelation. Born and raised in New Jersey, of South Asian ancestry, Penn has already established himself as a camera ready presence in goofy products like Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and the Van Wilder movies. So, it’s no big shock he’s as natural as he is in the stoned out, teenage rebellious scenes. But, as the stuff starts to hit the fan and as Gogol begins to realize he is more his parents’ child than he’d cared to admit, Penn’s performance digs in far deeper than we’ve seen him before. His mixed emotions are our own, his desperation in reaching for his legacy is palpable.

While The Namesake is very much of its specific ancestry (and will certainly tug at the heartstrings of any Indian watching it), its pull is universal. In this world wide culture, this is a film that reminds us all of who we are, where we come from and how, for better or worse, we’d better just embrace it.

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Joanna Langfield

Her voice is heard throughout the 50 states and around the world by more than one million listeners on her syndicated radio programs: Joanna Langfield’s People Report and Video and Movie Minute. She’s also seen and heard as a regular contributing commentator on CNN International, CNN, Fox News and CNBC. In print, her articles have been published in such high profile magazines as Video Review and McCall’s. Joanna Langfield is known for taking interviews to another level with probing looks at celebrities’ insights rather than just their latest projects. As a result, she’s secured a niche among the nation’s premier interviewers and movie critics. Joanna began her career on the production staff of a local Boston television station. She then focused her energies towards radio and produced talk shows at WMEX-AM in Boston. After moving to New York, she became executive producer at WMCA-AM for talk show personalities Barry Gray and Sally Jessy Raphael. She began hosting a one-minute movie review spot which, in turn, led to her top-rated weekend call in-show, The Joanna Langfield Show (1980-83). Joanna moved to WABC-AM to host The Joanna Langfield Show on Saturday nights from 9:00pm to midnight. It was the highest rated show in its time slot. From 1987-1989, Joanna hosted Today’s People on the ABC Radio network, which was fed daily to over 300 stations around the country. She also appeared on WABC-TV as a regular on-air contributor. In 1989, Joanna formed her radio production company, Joanna Langfield Entertainment Reports, to syndicate her radio reports. She is considered to be one of the top authoritative commentators on the entertainment industry. Read Lagfield's recent articles below. For her Women On Film archive, type "Joanna Langfield" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).