Friday, January 16, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

--a little note before I begin: Unlike traditional reviews, I've chosen not to include a summary of the plot here, as I'm assuming that by this point everyone and their pet dog has seen--or at least read about--the movie. For those of you who for any reason have been living in a black hole for the past two months, here's a nifty link you may know about that will get you up to speed.-

Given my lukewarm reaction to the much-hyped Slumdog Millionaire, I deliberately planned not to write anything about it lest I got attacked in my sleep by die-hard fans of the film. But when Danny Boyle* and gang exuberantly swept up a whopping four Golden Globes at last weekend's event, I figured, heck, they can afford a not-so-positive review amidst the majority of genuflecting critics and public. So here's my two-cents on this year's sleeper hit--Slumdog lovers, you have been warned.

I'm exaggerating. It's not as if I hated it, or that I thought it was badly made. On the contrary, the film is a visual treat. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle blows you away with simultaneously breathtaking and appalling panoramas of the urban contradiction that is Mumbai, be it two young brothers bolting through the squalid slums of Dharavi as they attempt to flee a raging riot, a rusty train hurtling through lush landscapes, or towering skyscrapers rising above their impoverished surroundings. With its slickly cut montage sequences combined with a verite approach that would make Vertov proud, the movie is a stylistic marriage of romantic escapism and gritty realism.

Then again, I could be watching an Optimum Online commercial and still be entranced if its background music was composed by A.R Rahman. Although I've always been in complete awe of his brilliance, the man has outdone himself here. From the hauntingly poignant melody of "Latika's theme" to the intense and exhilerating drumbeats of "Oh..Saya", the score of Slumdog deifies Rahman to new levels of musical godliness--now there's a Golden Globe well-deserved.

Which is more than I can say for the recipients of the other three awards. As far as the screenplay goes, I agree that Vikas Swarup's novel Q&A wasn't exactly Hemingway and didn't provide much to work off of in terms of memorable dialogue, but I was hoping that Simon Beaufoy could use some of the wit he displayed with The Full Monty to whip up something at least halfway innovative. Instead, Slumdog is a textbook case of cliched beats and lines that often left me cringing and squirming to a point where the guy sitting next to me at the theater was probably kind of frightened. I mean, really--Latika: "And live on what?" Jamal: "Love." And that's supposed to be more gripping than the script of Frost/Nixon.
Seriously, Hollywood Foreign Press? Seriously??

Ironically, it's the children in the movie, without any acting experience whatsoever, who steal the show. With their heartbreaking innocence, the "young" Jamal and Salim deliver the only truly genuine portrayals in the film (I'm guessing that actually having lived in Dharavi has something to do with that.) As for the real actors: Dev Patel, bless his cute-as-a-button self, needs to decide on an accent. Half the time he seems so preoccupied with keeping his British articulation to a minimum in order to come across as more "Indian" that the whole thing blows up in his face and he just ends up appearing confused and completely out of character. Anil Kapoor**, on the other hand, is so much in character that I was surprised Mr. Boyle didn't tell him to tone the blatant overacting down a bit for fear that he'd have a stroke on set. And unfortunately, Frieda Pinto has little to offer apart from a charming smile and good hair. Now, if I was paying attention in my Film 290 class, I believe the director is largely responsible for drawing out believable depictions from his or her talent. One simply can't expect me to buy that Mr. Boyle got a better performance out of this cast than Sam Mendes did out of Kate Winslet or Leonardo DiCaprio. Please.

Nor did he succeed in adapting the novel to create a believable story or credible characters. Older brother Salim sways irritatingly between protective affection and traitorous contempt for Jamal. Also, I'm sorry, but kids don't come out of the most destitute slum in India with an impeccable grasp of English. They just don't. And there's no way that one kid witnesses his mother's murder, escapes being blinded by gangsters, loses his lover twice, scavenges his way through childhood, and gets unfairly beaten up by corrupt policemen--and even if he did, it's highly unlikely that he'd come out of all that with the heart of gold that Jamal apparently possesses.

I don't mean to be the party pooper here. Having grown up on some of the most ridiculous of Bollywood blockbusters, I'm all for indulging in the occasional idealism or extravagance of a fairy tale plot. But there's a difference between "feel good" entertainment and naive misconstruction, and at many points it seems as though Boyle has taken his audience to be a group of fools, ready to accept anything as long as it's punctuated with a cute dance number***.

So although I can't deny the feeling of pride that came over me as I wached a film based in India garnering such praise at the Golden Globes****, let's be realistic here. A hackneyed storyline and overkill acting does not a Best Picture make, and as applaudable as its intentions were, this just isn't the movie of the year. One can only hope that future juries realize this before the next batch of awards --read, the Oscars--are handed out and Slumdog Millionaire once again walks away with accolades that belong to a cast and crew that truly merit it. And now if you will excuse me, I'm going to go buy a baseball bat to keep beside my bed tonight.

*I had pictured him to be a youngish, well-built stud of anEnglishman--I mean come on, we're talking about the guy behind the teen cult-creating Trainspotting here! Imagine my surprise when this guy scurried on stage to claim his statuette.

**Now this is an actor I've watched since I was about three. He's got some exceptional films and incredible performances to his credit and I wanted so much to like him in this movie. But I only got so far as 5000 rupees before I wanted to wring his smarmy neck.

***Although you have to hand it to Dev Patel here--the boy can move!

**** Right. As if I had anything at all to do with making the movie.

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