The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

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The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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Kal Penn surprises with strong performance in ‘The Namesake’

Ah, the stereotypical coming of age story. Whether it be the tortured tale of trying to make it through adolescence alive or a cheesy popcorn flick filled with all the intelligence thinly veiled pothead humor has to offer, we can all seem to find a way to relate. Today though, with the release of “The Namesake,” the formula has been rewritten.

First off, one essential thing needs to be clarified: “The Namesake” is not a textbook definition of a coming of age story. And now I’ve got you here scratching your head already, thinking, “Didn’t he just say it was a coming of age story?” Well, it is, but to comprehend the meaning here, know that this movie doesn’t revolve around one central figure overcoming adversity or the perils of young adulthood. Instead, the spectrum is widened to include an entire foreign family’s coming of age in America.

The movie opens in 1974 India. A young Bengali man, Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan), is on the brink of adulthood on a train to visit his grandfather in the country. As an old man describes to him the wonders of life in America, the train is derailed. Both haunting and jarring, the scene sets an underlying tone for the film and gives credible backstory to Ashoke’s eventual move from India to Queens, N.Y. Evidenced by scenes like this, “The Namesake” is blunt and straightforward when concerning its core premises. While this often hinders a film from being truly believable, it absolutely works here.

After two years in Queens, Ashoke eventually returns for an arranged marriage with a beautiful and playful Bengali woman, Ashima (Tabu). When the two return to Queens, Ashima finds it impossible to assimilate herself into the “American way of life,” and this suddenly becomes the overall focus of the film. Bar coded with the mindset, beliefs and morals of another culture, is it possible to embrace the new without forgetting the old?

This question is put to the test when the couple has a son, Gogol (Kal Penn, “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle”). Gogol spends his life trying to live what Americans perceive to be the “American dream.” By doing this, he closes himself off to his own culture, passing off tradition like an unwanted guest at his party. This ultimately sets him on a path far away from his family to an Ivy League school, a job as a highly paid architect and the status of boyfriend of the smokin’ hot trust-fund baby Maxine (Jacinda Barrett). Sounds like the perfect life, right? Or so he seems to think until the death of his father forces him to reexamine his life. You can guess where it goes from here: boy dumps girl, reconnects with family, attempts to gain understanding of his family’s culture and history.

But it isn’t really that simple at all. As director Mira Nair beautifully adapts Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2004 novel of the same name to the screen, it’s clear just how often things are complicated by a confusion of identity in the Ganguli family. In reality, nothing is really that clear, and it is most certainly not an easy task to balance old-world culture with a daunting new-world life.

As Gogol, Kal Penn embodies this very fact. Tackling his first serious acting role (unless you count his non-speaking role in “Superman Returns”), Kal Penn is confusing to watch at times. But this isn’t because his acting isn’t at the level it needs to be to do drama, instead it’s because “The Namesake” is his transitional film. In fact, Kal Penn is, well, actually very good. Some might argue that it’s an easy part due to the fact that he and the character share a similar background, but Penn has more than few tricks up his sleeve. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people leave this movie able to accept him as a serious actor.

“The Namesake” may be marketing Penn as the real selling point of this movie, but what are grossly underplayed here are the heartbreaking and unforgettable performances by Irfan Khan and Tabu as Penn’s parents. Both act the straight man, often unable to let their true emotions show (at least in a way that’s culturally relevant to America), and sometimes even appearing cold. But that’s all part of the illusion here; it’s culture that’s pulling the wool over your eyes and not an inability to love. In fact, the most touching moments of the film are those that focus around the relationship between Ashoke and Ashima. Leading lives ruled by tradition, their own love story is strong enough to be its own movie.

While “The Namesake” is a memorable tale of the human spirit, family and what inherently defines identity (trust me, you’ll find yourself really asking, “What’s in a name?”), it’s not without fault. There are definite pacing problems toward the end of the film. and a few too many flashback sequences.

But this is forgivable. Overall, the flubs seem insignificant and you’ll leave the theater remembering this film’s true namesake.

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