There's a great movie to be made about the huge cultural gulf between modern, first-generation Americans and their humble immigrant parents, but sadly, The Namesake isn't it. Adapted from Jhumpa Lahiri's novel, Mira Nair's film spans almost three decades, shuttles back and forth between Calcutta, New York and New England, and features a slew of talented performers headed up by the promising young actor Kal Penn. But what should've been an Indian-American Terms of Endearment ends up little more than a wan, lifeless guilt trip.
The problem is that narrative drive has never been Nair's strong suit. She's more content to come up with a sumptuous atmosphere, populate it with a bevy of fascinating characters and then stand back and observe. When it works (Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Masala), it's a treat; when it doesn't, as in this movie and her last, Vanity Fair, you're left with a curiously empty spectacle, a movie at once both epic and banal.
In telling the tale of an emotionally cloistered couple's journey to America and the parallel coming-of-age of their first child Gogol (Penn) who, like so many teenagers, resents and then reveres his parents The Namesake is not without its incidental pleasures. Graduating from the sublime stoner comedy Harold and Kumar, Penn is perfectly cast as a pothead teen who's at first ashamed of all things Indian, specifically his father (Irrfan Khan). As his mother, the Bollywood superstar Tabu manages to convey grace, confusion and fear in her new surroundings, where she's stranded in drab apartments and prefab ranch homes, adding hot pepper to her Rice Krispies for just the smallest taste of home.
But Nair's plodding adaptation in which the book's events are shoehorned into a very obvious chronology saps the movie of its emotional impact. Frederick Elmes' luscious cinematography contrasts the vibrant reds and golds of India with the grays and blues of America, but Nair never suggests that the two cultures can be bridged, even when Gogol takes up with a sultry Indian-American girl (Zuleikha Robinson); ultimately, her character exists only to demonstrate the pitfalls of forsaking your heritage for the pleasures of the forbidden Western world.
There's something blandly conventional about the messages in The Namesake that undermines the movie's power. Nair is more than willing to distill Gogol's complex dilemmas into a "tradition before self" theme: There's little acknowledgement that his father might have been an iconoclast back in India he did name his child after a Russian writer, after all or that a restless, inquisitive spirit has been handed down from parent to child. Instead, scene after scene shows Gogol denying his background at college and in the city, while his parents sit at home, anxiously waiting to hear from him. It's enough to make you feel like you're watching a feature-length version of one of those sappy old AT&T commercials, the ones designed to make you feel guilty for not calling the folks enough.
Showing at the Birmingham 8, 211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.