With her latest effort, director Nair (Vanity Fair
, Monsoon Wedding
) does not disappoint. Alternately vibrant and restrained in all the right places, The Namesake
is beautiful and engaging. A complex meditation on family, relationships, and identity, the film traces two generations of the Ganguli family. The parents, Ashima (Tabu) and Ashoke (Khan), are near strangers when, after their arranged marriage, they move from Calcutta to settle in New York City. Born in New York, their son, Gogol (Penn), embraces his American identity at the expense of his Indian heritage. As a child of immigrant parents, Gogol grows up surrounded by echoes of a vast culture. But while his parents struggle to maintain their identities, Gogol rejects his. With an ultra-Anglo girlfriend (Barrett) and a new name, Gogol wanders through life resentful and disconnected. Adapted from the bestselling novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, the film employs an episodic structure that results in multiple climactic moments and at times feels a bit rambling. But the film settles into a comfortable rhythm, and it’s clear that under Nair’s intimate and bold direction, we’re in good hands. When the beautiful Ashima first arrives in New York with her new husband, she might as well be walking on another planet. The sweltering colors of Calcutta contrast starkly with the frigid white of the New York winter. The beautiful cinematography (by Frederick Elmes), vibrant production design (by Stephanie Carroll), and gently moving performances ignite this portrait of isolation and identity. While Penn is known for his presence in over-the-top comedies (Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle
, Epic Movie
), his performance as Gogol is, by contrast, underplayed and real. Additional standouts include both Tabu and Khan as his parents and Robinson as a sly love interest. Though the film attempts to cover a lot of ground (clearly the result of novel adaptation), Nair’s direction rests elegantly on the small details. The result is a film that breathes in a way nearly unheard of at today’s multiplexes. Reminiscent of Jim Sheridan’s masterly In America
, The Namesake
delivers such a tactile presence that it’s difficult not to leave feeling as if you’ve just struggled through a New York winter, attended an Indian wedding, and returned from a Calcutta holiday.