Like the Jhumpa Lahiri novel from which it's taken, the film version of The Namesake is filled with loaded ellipses. In the opening scenes, a Bengali scholar (Irfan Khan) travels to New York shortly after an arranged marriage to a young singer (Tabu). After a period of adjustment to American ways and to each other, they settle in, move to the suburbs, and start a family, beginning with a boy named—almost by accident—after his Russian-literature-admiring father's favorite author, Nikolai Gogol. One leap in time later, Gogol has grown into a sullen, shaggy-haired teen (Kal Penn) for whom an unusual name is just a reminder of the differences of heritage and appearance that set him apart from those around him.
There's a big story here about immigration, assimilation, and identity, and the film, like the book, wisely chooses to tell it in small strokes. Khan and Tabu's initial awkwardness melts as they assume a lifestyle that's a hybrid of where they are and where they're from, one that allows for plastic Christmas trees and samosas. Penn grows up to become an architect and disappears into the surrogate family of girlfriend Jacinda Barrett and her Manhattan WASP parents. But eventually, it becomes clear he can only disappear so far.
For everything gained in the process of becoming American, something is lost, and the film is about the characters' attempts to find a balance that works. It's well-acted and filled with striking compositions, but director Mira Nair has trouble with a different kind of balance. Understated moments vie with dialogue that spells out the themes too explicitly, and the film rushes in its final act, reducing major relationships to a few scenes, and perhaps unavoidably, losing many of the fine details of Bengali tradition from Lahiri's book. Best known for broad comedies (most memorably, the infinitely rewatchable Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle), Penn establishes himself as a dramatic force here. But the deepest moments belong to Khan and Tabu, Indian film-industry veterans who beautifully play a relationship that begins in near-ignorance of each other, then deepens into a profound match in the unfamiliar environment of close-cropped suburban lawns. They're the heart of a film that, even when it loses focus, deserves credit for its graceful attempt to tell an all-American story with warm, unromanticized characters trying to discover who they are in a land too eager to impose its own definition on them.