Here's another way to stall actually writing this review: as a disclaimer, I find it necessary to tell you that I did not finish the film. Take what you will from that, but know that this review is somewhat incomplete.
The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri's only novel to date (she's also published two short story collections), is one of my favorite novels ever. It's filled with cultural clashes, family, love, heartbreak, and is bound to make you salivate (though I haven't read it since becoming vegetarian three years ago so all the descriptions of chicken and lamb are probably much less appealing now). The novel follows the Ganguli family as the parents marry and emigrate from India to America where they raise two children, and then focuses in on their son, Gogol, and his issues coming to terms with his name and heritage. Gogol was named for his father's favorite author by accident - what was meant to be a pet name became a good name (official name) due to confusions with American culture and a grandmother who died before telling them what to name the child. Gogol's struggles with his name echo his struggles with his parents' culture; when he rejects one, he rejects the other, and when he reclaims one… (you get it). It is a powerful, engaging novel that is worth several rereads and more than a few raves. As such, it was an obvious choice for a film adaptation.
To start with, the film transposes the Ganguli family from Boston to New York. Why? I have no idea. It was completely unnecessary and irritating, though I suppose it wouldn't bother anybody who hasn't read the book. It does diminish the distance that Gogol places between himself and his parents, though not significantly (New York to Boston vs. New York to New York). The film also includes details from the novel without proper exposition. For example: upon moving to America, Ashima (the mother) discovers that she can recreate a nostalgic Indian snack by combining crisped rice, peanuts, chili powder, and some other stuff. In the film, we see her make this concoction and that's all we know about it. The predictable response: Indians eat weird food. To be exact, the husband's response was, That's not going to taste good. Well, that's not the point. The moment is meant to be about nostalgia and loneliness and finding something familiar in a strange and isolating world and the film makes it about Indians eating weird food.
The whole movie seems detached in this way. It didn't draw me in at all - rather than feeling like I was immersed in the Gangulis' lives, I felt like I was watching actors read lines. I don't think this is the fault of the actors; rather, it is the fact that the actual words of the characters fail to portray their true emotions. The novel penetrates them through non-dialogue, which the film fails to find an adequate substitute for. The only time I felt at all moved was late in the film was when Gogol visibly embraces his heritage by shaving his head after his father's death. We could see his acceptance of his past and understand the significance of the gesture. Other than that one moment, I just felt like an observer - some actors were doing their thing on the TV while I sat on my couch. Very detached.
I ended up stopping the movie early because the DVD from Netflix was horribly scratched and kept skipping and freezing and being an all-around pain in the butt. I might have tried to work it out but it didn't really seem worth it. There's no reason to believe that the last twenty minutes of the film would save the rest.
I know what you're saying: it's a film adaptation of a book - of course it's terrible. The book is always better. Duh. Well, true but that doesn't mean that the movie has to be supremely disappointing and alienating. Wuthering Heights was wonderful and the Harry Potter movies, though not nearly as good as the books, still have me coming back for more (and rewatching the existing movies regularly). The Hours is both one of my favorite books and favorite movies. But The Namesake? Disappointing both in terms of its own namesake and as a film in general.
I'll leave you on a cheerier note:
I have the most polite cats in the world. Look at how nicely they wait on line!
Plus, when one's been drinking/showering for too long, she or he moves to the
back of the line and lets the other one have a turn!