You've seen it in a coming-to-America story before: A father tries to give his son a bit of wisdom, and the son isn't listening. This father, Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan), an immigrant from India, smiles anyway, seemingly confident in the powers of the subconscious to sway his son, Gogol (Kal Penn), named for his favorite writer, Nicolai Gogol. It's usually an effective scene, but a little mystifying in Mira Nair's "The Namesake," which expects you not only to have read the book on which it is based, but to be up on your Gogol as well. "We all come from Gogol's 'Overcoat,'" Ashoke tells his son. "One day you will understand." Maybe his son will understand someday. I don't know if we will.
As an immigrant story, "The Namesake" is effective with the stuff you expect from it. Soon-to-be grandparents, entrenched in their native India, pridefully mate a son, Ashoke, and daughter, Ashima (Tabu), and send them off to America, where they raise the kids who rebel against traditions and expectations. The tug of war between new and old structures the film, which is beautiful to look at, with gorgeous, bright colors dashed around expertly choreographed weddings, funerals and frequent excursions abroad (no family gathering is left out in the cold).
There's nothing wrong with familiar scenes, and nothing wrong with making them look good. (The early scenes with Ashoke and Ashima getting to know each other are especially moving.) Her story, though comfortable in its universal appeal, hits a few bumpy themes along the way. But Nair, working from a book by Jhumpa Lahiri, felt the need to allegorize the whole thing with constant references to a brilliant but seldom-read Russian author.
Despite a lack of ultimate coherence, "The Namesake" has a heartbeat. The emotions alternately hopeful and nostalgic carry through most of the time, the exceptions being Gogol's scenes. I've never seen Penn in his role as Taj in National Lampoon's "Van Wilder" series, but maybe his stiffness is an asset there. Here he has the expression of a man wearing a toupee that's threatening to fall off, even in the scenes in which he's bald. Overlook Penn, and "The Namesake" could be enjoyed as easy sentiment. Or it could be snored at, depending on your state of mind. But it's not something you'd travel any great distance for. (PG-13) 122 min.*** S