Film review: Delightful 'Namesake' is a character study

Published: Friday, March 30 2007 12:52 a.m. MDT

THE NAMESAKE — *** 1/2 — Kal Penn, Tabu, Irfan Khan; with English subtitles (for Indian dialects); rated PG-13 (sex, violence, profanity, drugs, brief nudity, vulgarity, brief gore).

Kal Penn has shown an aptitude for comic acting in such movies as "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" and "National Lampoon's Van Wilder" — in fact, in the latter film, he was the only bright spot.

But the comedy-drama "The Namesake" reveals Penn to have more dramatic chops than we might have thought. His credible lead performance is just one of the delights of this low-key character study, an adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's well-regarded novel of the same name.

Penn stars as the title character, Gogol Ganjuli, whose father (Irfan Khan, from "The Warrior") named him after the famous Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. However, the know-it-all "namesake" isn't too impressed. And having been born in America, he's constantly butting heads with his more tradition-bound parents, who were born and raised in India.

Like the novel, director Mira Nair's adaptation (penned by screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala) is more character-driven than plot-driven. Most of the film examines the parents' early relationship, as well as the cultural differences they encounter in America.

As a result, the movie might be perceived as being a little slow but it's surprisingly engrossing, and the occasional bits of humor are welcome and in keeping with the tone of the entire piece.

It helps that most of the characters are interesting. Penn is impressive, and his Bollywood co-stars, especially Khan and Tabu as his parents, are quite good as well.

The film also boasts a few scenes that highlight some beautiful Indian locales. A brief glimpse of the spectacular Taj Mahal is itself worth the price of admission.

"The Namesake" is rated PG-13 for simulated sex and other sexual contact, a brief scene of violence (a train wreck, mostly overheard), scattered strong profanity, drug content (marijuana use), brief female nudity, use of vulgar gestures, and brief glimpses of some gory and disturbing imagery. Running time: 122 minutes.


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com