Monday, March 16, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire (2008) A Film by Danny Boyle

The decision that the Academy makes on "Best Picture" has always seemed to elude my understanding, so I was not necessarily surprised when I found myself scratching my head at the end of Danny Boyle's latest film, Slumdog Millionaire. Last year I watched Paul Thomas Anderson's magisterial There Will be Blood get snubbed, and this year, I could have taken Clint Eastwood's Changeling (which was not even nominated) or Gus Van Sant's Milk over this melodramatic underdog story set in the slums of Mumbai, India. Up to this point, Danny Boyle has not proved his seriousness as a filmmaker, no matter how much he delves into weighty subject matter. Slumdog Millionaire, though, at least showcases Boyle as a kinetic entertainer, which even escaped me in his earlier hit Trainspotting, a film that was rambunctiously stylized but ultimately airless.

The "Best Picture" winner details the improbable story of a "slumdog" named Jamal Malik who triumphs on the Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?", only to be accused of cheating. We discover through jittery flashbacks that his goal in participating in the show was to be seen on the television by his childhood love, Latika. He insists that money is not his incentive, although once the show's air time is pushed to a second night, you'd think he'd be satisfied. Instead he clings to flashbulb memories from his youth, which always conveniently provide him the answers to nearly every question that gets thrown his way by the slimy host. Through his teenage years, we see the days leading up to his unlikely chance to cooperate on the show (a bit that teeters on explanation but eventually is dismissed altogether), where he discovers a lovelorn Latika after several years under the wing of a malicious, womanizing executive.

The social realities of poverty-stricken India are only skimmed over in Jamal's youth, but nonetheless provide the hard-nosed substance of most of the film. Jamal and his brother Salim sprint from street to street in a perpetual escape from danger, but frequently can not avoid it: in one gritty scene, we see the two with friends captured by frightening men who blind them in a dark forest. As they kneel above the flames beside them however, one cannot help but recall a visually congruent scene in Fernando Meirelles' City of God involving a ritual with the film's antagonist, Lil Ze. In fact, much of Slumdog Millionaire appears to have used the Brazilian masterpiece as a reference point; the frenetic, highly saturated visuals - which frequently use the teeming neighborhoods as abstractions from bird's-eye views - are rip-off material, and whereas City of God lingered on this style as a means of rubbing your face relentlessly in the squalor, narratively necessary or not, Boyle's film only undermines its bouts of realism with consistent impossibilities and a nauseatingly fantastical ending.

How is it that each question happens to trigger a minor memory of Jamal's youth? How does a very minimally educated boy learn English rapidly enough to act as the tour guide for a group of Americans visiting the Taj Mahal? Where did Latika purchase a cell phone that would ring for five minutes, precisely enough time for her to watch the first few rings on the television as Jamal phones a friend and subsequently dash the long stretch back to her car where the phone sat? Everything is too coincidental, which is fine in a Bollywood film, but not in a film that attempts to use realism so heavily. Fortunately, after so much misfortune, Jamal finally embraces Latika in a subway station and kisses her to yet another pseudo-moving Indian pop song. The camera freeze frames on the two before the credits roll. Sounds just like Disney, and it kills to see such a sentimental ending spoil an otherwise exciting, if implausible, film. Not to mention I prefer directors who refrain from bathing their characters from film to film in fecal matter.

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