Sunday, March 8, 2009

If I Had a Rupee for My Thoughts I'd Be a Millionaire

Now that the critics top-ten lists have been published and forgotten and the Academy Awards statuettes distributed, I suppose it's finally time to make known my opinion of 2008's most-honored film, Slumdog Millionaire: I didn't much like it.

Don't get me wrong; there was lots to like about the movie.  It won 8 Oscars, and it richly deserved most of them.  Danny Boyle's direction, the editing and cinematography, and (especially) the music all keep the film moving; the disappointing thing is that it's all in service of a plot built on a mountain of contrivances and a love story that never once felt natural.

At one point in the film one character warns another that Maman, the most despicable of the movie's many villains, "never forgets a face," but he's not the only one.  I quickly lost track of how many characters immediately recognized each other after years of separation.  This flaw carries over to the central relationship between Jamal and Latika; this is supposed to be some grand love story, but the two characters only share the briefest of encounters followed by multi-year separations.  I know that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was last year's film that was criticized for being a retread of Forrest Gump, but if the Slumdog couple's absurdly punctuated romance brought anything to my mind, it was Forrest and Jenny's similarly choppy plot.

The framing device (or rather, framing device within a framing device) that gives the film its title is the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, on which Jamal is an unlikely contestant.  These game show scenes contained another major flaw for me: maybe it's a result of spending a lot of time watching that show when I was a Freshman in college, but I kept wanting to shout at the screen, "That's not how it works!"  OK, I can accept that the Indian TV show may have different rules, but on a live broadcast, would they really let the contestant take a bathroom break in the middle of the show?  And if they did, wouldn't they take some basic precautions, like not letting the host walk into the bathroom as well and have a leisurely chat with said contestant?

As the contestant in question, Dev Patel has a certain blankness.  That works to his character's favor when he needs to appear as a nervous game-show contestant, but not so well in the rest of the film.  The explanation for Jamal's unlikely success is the repeated phrase "It's written," making him less and actor than an object for outside forces to act upon.  As a Lost fan, it may be hypocritical for me to say this, but I have trouble caring about a narrative that places so much emphasis on the idea of fate.

That's not to say the film is entirely without merit.  The first third of the film casts an unblinking eye on the horrific violence and poverty in Jamal's early life; while these scenes are immensely difficult to watch, they also lend the film a gravity that is largely missing later on.  On the other end of the spectrum, a comic scene as Jamal impersonates a tour guide at the Taj Mahal is one of the few points of the movie that I laughed out loud.  Unsurprisingly, though, most of the highlights are the result of Danny Boyle's considerable talent at matching up images and music.  These include the opening credits (a chase through the Mumbai slums set to the Oscar-nominated "O..Saya"), a montage set on a train with the ubiquitous "Paper Planes," and the big-finish, a non sequitor Bollywood dance sequence (set to the Oscar-winning song "Jai Ho").  It's just a shame that the rest of the film never feels as alive as those moments.

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