Saturday, December 27, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

I was intrigued when I first read about Slumdog Millionaire, but missed the preview screenings when we opened it; and even though I’ve gotten back into the habit of catching our preview screenings, I rarely make it to movies if I don’t catch the preview. Then, of course, the damn awards buzz started to pick up, and a couple of early critics group slapped their Best Picture tag on it, and I sort of did a double-take. Really? Slumdog Millionaire?

I finally got around to seeing it tonight after I got off work, and I have to say that I was underwhelmed. It’s a well-made film, with really fine editing and exemplary photography (which has not - in the case of photography - been the case with a couple of the movies I have really liked in the last few months, notably Milk and Rachel Getting Married), and there are lots of bright colors and a totally dope thumping backbeat; but when you get right down to it, that’s mostly just shiny window-dressing for a contemporary fairy tale that bobs and weaves amusingly, but never surprises.

Granted, it’s a fairy tale set against the backdrop of the slums of modern day Mumbai, which sort of heightens the appeal of winning a boatload of money and getting the hell out of there to someplace better. The trouble with that, however, is that it’s not the point of the story, which concerns Jamal Malik, a young man who appears on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? with the hope that Latika, the love of his life, will be watching the show and that they can run away together after it’s over.

The film opens with Jamal being tortured by police after he is arrested for fraud. They think that he’s been cheating on the show because he has known all of the answers and has progressed farther than the best educated contestants who have appeared before him. The back story is filled in as the police inspector questions Jamal about how he knew the answers to so many questions. The inspector plays a tape of Jamal’s appearance on the show, and they go through the questions one by one.

The editing and the script here are strong, allowing Jamal’s story to reveal itself slowly. Jenny Lumet’s screenplay for Rachel Getting Married does the same thing, though Lumet deftly employs sleight of hand with her revelations, uncorking a couple of plot points that are unexpected and powerfully delivered. (This is the more impressive given that Rachel is Lumet’s first screenplay.) Nothing in Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay comes at you out of left field, once you cotton on to the notion that this is a quest for true love.

(I think the glaring problem with the way the story is constructed is that all of the questions with which Jamal is set on the show have answers that he knows because he has encountered the information or situation at some point already in his young life - Jamal relates these life anecdotes to the police inspector who, somewhat remarkably, I think, believes what Jamal is telling him. There are only two of the fifteen questions to which Jamal does not know the answer. The resolution of the first brings the only moment of real drama in the film, and the resolution of the second - the last question of the game, the big kahuna - is just sloppy. That he knows the answers to all of the other questions can be accepted within the context of a fairy tale in which you must suspend your disbelief - but based on one of the early anecdotes he relates to the police inspector [which contains one of the film's two running themes], it seems clear that he should know the answer to the last question. It seems an awful lot to ask for a film that is already asking a lot of its audience in terms of winking at the lack of realism.)

Would that true love were easy, forsooth! Alas, it is not. That this is especially true in places like India serves only to sharpen the contrast between the good - true love - and the bad - jumping through the hole of an outhouse (into the soup, naturally) your rascally brother has locked you into in order to keep you from getting the autograph of your favorite action movie hero; it does nothing to elevate the conventions of the story above the cloying fens of melodrama. For all of its technical wizardry (the photography really is very good) and stylish good looks, Slumdog Millionaire is just a by-the-numbers fairy tale with an exotic setting - and the goofy wink, at the end, to eastern mysticism/religion/mythology (they’re all basically the same thing) doesn’t help matters.

For what it is - a fairy tale - Slumdog Millionaire does the things that it does reasonably well; I just don't think that the things that it does are especially interesting. This is not a bad picture at all, but how it’s getting Best Picture buzz is utterly beyond me.

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