Rightwing Film Geek

Seen at the weekend, Part 3

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THE NAMESAKE (Mira Nair, USA, 2007, 3)

The problem here is in the very conception of making a theatrical movie. This two-generation Indian immigrant saga tries to hew to the orthodoxy of the 2-hour running-time while, I presume, trying to be faithful to the sweep and scope of the best-selling novel. It’s not director Nair’s fault, or that of the actors, who are all passable and some very good — Bollywood devi Tabu as the mother, particularly. But I just don’t see how this script could possibly have turned into a good movie. Frequent Nair scriptwriter Sooni Taraporevala either needed to chop out big chunks of the book or tell Nair or the money men that this novel was only filmable as a 6-hour miniseries for HBO.

As it is, THE NAMESAKE tries to pick up every stick and drops them all, careening about from event to event, from subplot to subplot, from character to character, trying to cram everything in and leaving nothing with any chance to build or resonate. Central character Gogol’s marriage takes up four quick scenes, from meeting to seduction to marriage to doubt to cheating to a past-tense reference to divorce. The mother suddenly decides to move back to India, exactly after she’s become Americanized, but without reference to what might have seemed like the reason three plot points ago. She has a librarian friend who appears in three scenes, once to hint that the son might be gay (not followed up on, or funny in itself). The big revelation about Gogol’s name falls flat because we already know it from earlier in the movie. Every plot is like Cecil B. DeMille’s Crusades — one quick, decisive battle, rather than decades upon centuries of attrition and intermittent war.

The whole movie feels so rushed that it fails to create characters or situations we care about. And unlike KILLER OF SHEEP, which also fails to do that but pretty clearly isn’t trying too hard on that front and at least takes the time to develop individual moments, THE NAMESAKE is filled with plot and events. It’s like reading the Cliffs Notes plot section and thinking it’s “War & Peace.” Or watching two-hours’ worth of trailers for some epic serial. And maddeningly, THE NAMESAKE seems to be being well-received. Steve Greydanus said the following at Christianity Today:

At the end of its 122 minutes, perhaps, few if any of the story’s various partial threads have really been resolved. Open-ended and somewhat scattered, the film is generally engaging but feels elusively incomplete. …
A more disciplined approach to the screenplay might have distilled Lahiri’s 300-page novel into something more satisfyingly focused. Instead, frequent Nair collaborator Sooni Taraporevala chooses to sketch in and gesture at as much of the book as possible, trusting viewers to supply the rest. …
The Namesake may be best enjoyed by viewers most able to connect the dots and fill in the gaps wherever Lahiri’s creation hasn’t quite made it to the screen.

Exactly. And the remarkable thing is that having described exactly why this is a pretty bad movie, Nair’s worst in my opinion (and I’ve seen KAMA SUTRA), Greydanus insists on telling us how good it is.

(Victor shrugs.)

June 4, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , ,

2 Comments »

  1. If I’ve described the film accurately, I’ve been successful, irrespective of whether anyone (including me) liked or didn’t like it. Any review that someone reads and says “Exactly,” especially if they disagree about the enjoyability of the film, is a good review. :)

    I’ve seen the film twice now, once at a screening and once with Mrs. Decent Films. My only caveat to the above critique is that I can’t say the rushedness of the film prevents it from creating characters that we care about. I find that I do care quite a bit about Ashima, Asoke and Gogol — and the very fact that I feel my time with them was incomplete is evidence of that.

    As a point of contrast, superficially I could compare not knowing enough about Ashima, Asoke and Gogol with not knowing enough about Daniel Plainview or Paul Sunday; the difference is that I would see no point in spending any more time with the latter. Them, I don’t care about.

    Comment by SDG | January 31, 2008 | Reply

  2. Ick. That’s a near-blasphemous comparison. Say what you like about BLOOD, there’s no way one can compare a movie so focused, so plot-light and so texture-heavy to something as sprawling and … well … rambling as THE NAMESAKE, (BTW … have you read this thread at Barbara’s).

    But are you saying that you find Eli and Plainview too unpleasant as humans or too opaque as characters? I know I generally have darker, more-pessimistic tastes than you do, so Our Mileage May Vary. As for the latter, I don’t know how much more there really can be to know. Neither man (especially Plainview) is what we’d call psychologically complex, but those very limitations, their single-mindedness, their all-consuming character flaws, tell us everything we could want.

    But in any event, the problem is that a movie doesn’t give you the option, which you have in real life, of spending more time with a person that you might hit it off with but had to leave too quickly from a time constraint (well, maybe in the director’s cut DVD, or perhaps a sequel).

    Comment by vjmorton | February 5, 2008 | Reply


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