Jhumpa Lahiri's best-selling novel The Namesake spans two generations and two continents in its exploration of culture, identity, and family. That's a lot of ground to cover in a couple hours, but director Mira Nair deftly translates the tale to the big screen—The Namesake captures the immigrant experience with a complexity and nuance that is usually reserved for literature.
A first-generation Indian American, Gogol Ganguli (Kal Penn) isn't ashamed of his parents, exactly—he just doesn't think their lives have anything to do with his. As a teenager, he hates his oft-mocked name; as an adult, he starts going by Nik, then distances himself from his parents and the community of Indian immigrants to which they belong. His life as a successful architect is worlds away from his childhood home—the elegant paradox being that Gogol only decided to become an architect after seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time.
Though the formula is familiar, The Namesake is head and shoulders above standard coming-of-age tropes. The first quarter of the film focuses exclusively on Gogol's parents—on the early years of their marriage, when they were young and brave and in love in a new country. This gives the viewer a better understanding of Gogol's background than Gogol himself has; it also turns his parents (played by Indian stars Tabu and Irfan Kahn) into some of the most sympathetic movie parents of all time.
Kal Penn (best known as Kumar in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle) gives a spot-on performance as the stoned and surly teenaged Gogol, and then cleans up nice to depict the character as an adult, while Jacinda Barrett is brilliantly cast as Gogol's WASP-y girlfriend: pretty, smart, and exuding an almost imperceptible air of entitlement. It's in fact hard to find fault with this film; Gogol's compelling story is told with sensitivity, skill, and grace.