Nov 17, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

Or: Review of a movie I hate because everyone seems to love it.

To judge from the sold out crowds at the Angelika, you'd think this new film by Danny Boyle is the second coming of cinema. I went with great expectations, having read some enthusiastic reviews and having seen the crowds (which, note to self, should never ever be a reason to see anything).
I really wanted to like this movie because I like some of the films of Danny Boyle, but I guess I happen to like the ones that are diametrically opposed in tone and spirit to this saccharine fantasy. That is, Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and 28 Days Later.
I'm wondering if, because I am a jaundiced Mexican, I have zero tolerance for sentimental cheese. I do not find the Third World's infatuation with love-conquers-all stories endearing (call me a verbissener, I think the media in these countries conspires to keep the poor ignorant through these kinds of basic, corny stories), so I may just not be the audience for this film. Movies that attempt to manipulate my feelings with every heavy handed trick in the book, earn my eternal enmity. I am the only person I know who hates Amelie (which at least tries to look like a fantasy). And don't get me started on that obscene, disgusting film called Life is Beautiful.
Slumdog Millionaire audaciously tries it to have it both ways. It gives us a pretty dreary, Dickensian view of the terrible lot of slum children in India, while at the same time it engages in a romantic fantasy, with absolutely implausible, unrealistic plot turns, all toward a happy ending (the end credit sequence -- very cute, but too little, too late). I understand that the movie tries to pay homage to Indian movies, but I have seen Indian movies, also about the downtrodden, also about their dignity and resourcefulness, that have far more subtlety and grace and humanity (Vanaja is a good example). And as per Bollywood, there is more levity and humor and feisty good nature in any Bollywood movie than in this contrived tale.
In my view, horrible violence and corny romance do not mix well. The movie tries very hard to be bittersweet but even its ironies are so obvious they hit you over the head with a hammer. Forget about subtlety, which it utterly lacks, just one true feeling, one real, dimensional human behavior, would have been welcome.
The story of a slum child in Mumbai who survives absolute horror to be the winner of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire for his one true love, could have been far more touching, truer and deeper, had anybody bothered writing something other than clichés. Ambitiously, through the adventures of Jamal and his brother Salim, the movie tries to depict India in a nutshell, from the orphan slum dwellers of Mumbai, to the telemarketing middle class kids of the new India, even with a necessary, picture postcard detour at the Taj Mahal.
Boyle has the good fortune to have found two gorgeously spirited urchins to play the brothers when they're young children, and their charming sidekick Latika, the love interest. The rest of the cast is nowhere near as charming or believable (except for the always magnificent Irfan Khan, the only person in the whole enterprise who acts like a human being).
The camera is super dynamic, the shots and the color and the editing are great, but the back and forth structure of the movie soon becomes repetitive. The movie soon starts looking like a pretentious, if beautifully shot, commercial. The flashback structure between an entire episode of the show (with its contrived, fabricated suspense) and the childhood of hero Jamal, makes it for very slow going, regardless of how many adventures he and Salim go through.
The high concept of the movie is what bothers me most: that Jamal knows the answer to the questions because they were present at a certain juncture in his eventful life. Sheer fantasy, piled on without remorse or discretion. I do not object to see movies about flying elephants, but if we are knee deep in reality, if there are graphic scenes of terrible cruelty to children, why can't there be psychological realism? You can have all the fantasy and happy endings and romance you want with human insight. Look at the films of one Charles Chaplin.
In the end, even with all the good faith in the world, the sentiment of this film is wielded so mercilessly and is so contrived, why should we believe it? Why should we believe that indeed an impoverished slum child can rise above the most terrible circumstances to greatness if nothing in his story rings true? I think spectacles like this are a slap in the face of the poor, while those who can afford a movie ticket can celebrate cozily the ridiculous notion that love conquers all.
I realize I hate movies about fate. Fate, like religion, allows for all kinds of illogic and leaves little room for doubt. I prefer movies that raise questions about the human condition, not movies that think there is only one answer and treat you like you are too dumb to ask.

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