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Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Oscar-Mired Wieners, Part Two

A few years ago, I stopped going to the movies during Oscar season; I should clarify by saying that I only went to movies that I was fairly sure had no chance of being recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I couldn’t take the over-produced crowd-pleasing nonsense that passed for High Art; you know, movies like Slumdog Millionaire

Blasphemy! How could I have not fallen in love with the moving story of lovable beggar Oliver Twist—sorry, Jamal Malik. I’ll tell you how. Have a look at the film’s poster. You see option “D” in the multi-choice Who Wants To Be A Millionaire question? Well, the movie opens with a similar question and a similar set of options, except that “D” is “It Is Written”. Yes, thirty seconds into the movie, I said, “Oh, fuck” (to myself, of course). What follows is two hours of contrived back-story in which our hero answers a series of Millionaire questions whose answers relate—in chronological order—to his hard-scrabble Indian upbringing. Think of this movie as Forrest Gupta

It’s not all heart-strings and fanfare, though. Director Danny Boyle brings some great touches of savagery to the screen, including peasant children being blinded for the purpose of gaining more charity and Jamal’s torture at the hands of local cops. These scenes hint at a more genuine film, but every grasp is met with a scene-shift into either stereotypes (let’s laugh at the guilty white American tourists!) or falsehoods (what game show would allow the host and contestant to take an un-monitored simultaneous piss-break after the last—and most valuable—question has been asked?)…

This is a shame, too, as the cast is uniformly terrific. Dev Patel in particular plays the grown-up Jamal with passion and wonder; the script, however, paints his character as alternately a kind of autistic rube and a pissy brute that prefers slamming people into walls over reasoned discussion. Anil Kapoor, as the game show host, is sufficiently cheery and exciting; but he is undermined by a late-in-the-story plot involving his unease at being de-throned as the show’s reigning champion (not to mention the fact that he’s apparently some sort of crooked crime boss with enough pull to have the cops torture contestants in between tapings). I don’t know if such things actually occur in Dubai, or if screenwriter Simon Beaufoy is counting on my cultural ignorance to pull one over on me; either way, Slumdog Millionaire doesn’t make me believe that these things could happen or should happen…

I also don’t buy Jamal’s undying love for Latika (Frieda Pinto), another street urchin who grows up to be a mobster’s girlfriend and one of the most beautiful women in the world. Jamal pursues her for most of his young life, never quite putting together the fact that she’s been a prostitute for much of hers; the movie doesn’t even attempt to deal with this issue; she’s just, y’know, looking for love and stuff. In Boyle and Beaufoy’s India, the streetwalkers are all well-adjusted, kept women. Okay, maybe that’s unfair, but the film’s utter lack of context gives me nothing to work with, and certainly nothing to care about…

I almost forgot to mention Jamal’s brother, Salim . He’s the Bad Brother (Jamal’s the Good Brother, you see). Salim opts for the glamour and security offered by a life of crime, and his storyline ends on a laughable Scarface-esque note. Shortly after, we’re treated to a wholly out-of-place Bollywood dance number, and I suppose it’s Boyles only measure of restraint that we didn’t see Salim’s bulled-ridden corpse doing the Electric Slide…

Danny Boyle has made two great movies: Trainspotting and Sunshine. While not perfect, they firmly establish the other-worldly qualities of their characters and their lives. Slumdog Millionaire tries to have it both ways: it wants to be both a fairy tale and a gritty slice-of-life culture study. But the script—which, had it been written for the Hollywood studio system, would have been rejected by the B-staff of Full House—never gets on board with either idea. For a film like this to work, one must either remove the contrivances or head at them full-speed with stylistic over-kill. This syrupy pap just made me want to kill myself…

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