Thursday, March 08, 2007

Family ways

Spring is in the air, at least where U.S. movie screens are concerned. The generally excellent Zodiac, a police procedural that dovetails with an investigative reporting storyline, then merges into a blackly comic look at obsession (with one genuine scream-at-the-screen moment), is playing. Like Craig Brewer's previous Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan is a hard shell wrapped around a soft candy inside, more conservative than controversial, but sweet, and a novel take on a Pygmalion story (chained to Samuel L. Jackson's radiator, white-hot trash Christina Ricci becomes a better, blues-loving person). Opening tomorrow is the Korean horror hit The Host, which I had already described as Little Miss Sunshine meets Godzilla, a money blurb the distributor should feel free to borrow. [More on that here, from the pixels of Cineaste. Bong's prior film, Memories of Murder, is outstanding and worth a rental if The Host grabs you.]

The Host deals with a family in fragments. So, too, does Mira Nair's The Namesake (Fox Searchlight), which is also opening tomorrow, just in time to further chase away those late-winter blues. I've seen just about all of Nair's films, but with the exception of Monsoon Wedding have never really warmed to any of them. Never less than respectable, they're usually a little light for me, not in terms of content but in her approach to the material, which favors lyricism over depth. The Namesake, based on a highly regarded bestseller by Jhumpa Lahiri, tethers her to a stronger narrative than usual; things get a little fuzzy toward the close, but there's a tautness and purposefulness here missing from most of her work, for which a fine, and close, adaptation by Sooni Taraporevala takes ample share of the credit. So, too, does the typically excellent cinematography by Frederick Elmes, whose credits range from Blue Velvet to The Ice Storm. Here he makes Queens, NY, as exotic as the story's other location, Calcutta, but also as equally mundane.

In a key way, The Namesake reminded me of The Graduate, in that both feature star-making central performances. Kal Penn has been a mainstay in stoner comedies like Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle for some time but here he sobers up winningly, handling all aspects of a large and difficult role with tremendous ease. He plays Gogol Ganguli, the New York-born and bred son of Indian emigres Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu). In his college years, Gogol, a dutiful son with a slightly rebellious streak, rejects his offbeat given name and dates a blue-blooded blonde (Jacinda Barrett) while studying architecture at Yale. Learning how his name was derived from the Russian author of The Overcoat is just one of the film's family-related revelations; there is unexpected tragedy, and an equally unexpected relationship with mousy family friend Moushumi (Rome co-star Zuleikha Robinson), who has blossomed unpredictably with the passage of time.

Long-time readers of this blog (which just celebrated its first year) know that I don't do much in the way of extensive plot summary; I have to have some other inducement for play-by-play. But should you choose to see The Namesake (and New York viewers should know that the Paris, home of so many Merchant-Ivory pictures, is the perfect place to see it) you'll thank me for not spoiling too much, not that the storyline is particularly soap-operatic. The story of Gogol's name is actually elaborated in an opening scene, involving a massive train wreck, but the full import of the gesture is not clear till the train-bound end of the picture.

The film could easily have been a mess of flashbacks, but Nair has chosen to tell most of it straightforwardly; Penn, who radiates an appealing low-key charisma as he negotiates his Bengali and American ties, doesn't enter the scene until about 45 minutes in. And this is a good thing, as it gives us more of an opportunity to spend quality time with Khan and Tabu, seasoned Bollywood performers new to me. They are perfectly cast as partners in an unlikely arranged marriage that somehow survives cultural dislocation in frigid New York. Khan is the gentle, more intellectual helpmate, and Tabu is simply bewitching as the centrifugal force, an aspiring singer who puts her dreams on hold to raise her two children in an unfamiliar country. I was held by them till they naturally cede the screen to Penn, who does not disgrace his parentage and gives a lively, funny, even sexy performance.

A typical movie year doesn't begin to heat up till late March or early April. But with films of the caliber of The Namesake in release it looks as if daylight savings time has extended to the cinema as well.

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