Slumdog Millionaire (2008, Danny Boyle)
Danny Boyle’s neatly wrapped boxing in of a culture he doesn’t understand follows Dev Patel (a British actor; imagine that!) as a young man named Jamal, introduced to us as a contestant on the Indian broadcast of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. He’s gotten all the answers right and a whole lot of attention, mostly positive, but now he’s being investigated (and tortured, naturally) for possibly cheating! Cheating! On national television! Which is a pretty important thing until the movie decides it isn’t anymore, because the interrogator decides he believes the kid, because why not. Each question Jamal’s been posed during the broadcast has quite improbably been familiar to him because of some incident from his young life in the slums up to his frantic adolescence on the run with his brother then alone in a quest to reconnect with a childhood sweetheart. Even more improbably, the questions occur in just the right order to tell Jamal’s life story chronologically — and then, after we’ve invested our time in this gentleman’s saga, well, everything just works exactly the best way you would hope, the boy is victorious in everything, and all live happily ever after. There’s no irony, no complication, no big-idea context — this film is about a kid who has to struggle for a little while and then gets everything he ever wanted: the girl, plus a million dollars because again, why not.
The queasy falseness of Boyle’s Oscar-winning feel-gooder may not be hard for everyone to take; sometimes we need a movie that reaffirms our faith in something, but in this case the only thing being affirmed is a belief that movies can be blandly happy affairs even with dubious moralizing and pseudo-consciousness artificially injected. It’s not as if a sense of achievement on Jamal’s part or ours feels earned; he leads a charmed Hollywood life, his guesses and other coincidences just working out correctly like something out of a Horatio Algar novel, and we are never allowed to get to know him beyond his hardship and his extremely irritating lusting after a girl he was kind of friends with when he was six years old. There’s nothing wrong with a story about love conquering all if we have any investment in its idea of love; like the garishly colored, pathetically idealized India of the film, Jamal and all of those around him are cardboard cutouts. I not only don’t care that he wins and they kiss at the end, I long — long for something even remotely interesting to happen to them. Even something clichéd and stupid like a climactic assassination, because anything would be better than the painfully straight-ahead false passion that attempts to justify the film’s thesis that “it is written.” Maybe it is written, but I don’t want to watch a movie about that. Why play the game if you know the outcome?
It’s fashionable, for reasons I can’t begin to fathom, to compare Slumdog Millionaire to Fernando Meirelles’ glorious City of God; since the stories don’t strike me as remotely similar, I have to assume this is because it’s difficult for some folks to handle the idea that black or brown people might populate more than one movie. If we must address this, the parallel is nonsensical; City of God‘s central character, Rocket, was vivid and weighty and complex, while Jamal is both poorly fleshed out, few of any of his actions making much sense, and weakly acted by the empty-eyed Patel, who may indeed be a fine performer. The movie just gives him nothing to work with.
I’m unable to comment on whether the general hollowness of Slumdog is a Boyle problem, as I’ve just seen two of his earlier films, one of which (<a href="Trainspotting) I found intricate and delightful, the other (A Life Less Ordinary) an embarrassment. Here, he joins the dubious ranks of white men directing flight-of-fancy movies about India, from the sublime (Jean Renoir with The River) to the good-hearted but condescending (Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited). For me, Slumdog is more offensive than either because of its flirtations with fake class consciousness, celebrating in the end the same shallow excesses Boyle pretends to reject with his MTV-style perspective on poverty and religious warfare, and slum-touring exoticism. But it almost muddles things up too much to even address this, and one wonders if that was in fact the intention — considering just how hackneyed the story is, maybe Boyle wanted to make people mad so they’d direct their attentions elsewhere.
As it is, the film wouldn’t be much different if set in some American ghetto, the story would still be nonsense that wants to get credit for being uncompromising but also wants the full-on phony sentimentality of a happy ending in order to justify its own wallowing in the strife of torture and the creation of over-the-top evil, served here by the trafficking of young children for their body parts and a typical one-dimensional gangster whose ruthlessness is mainly glimpsed through his domestic routines, designed for our heroes to save the day from. Or to not do much of anything, just stand there and look cute while someone else does the work — and martyrs himself for the movie’s cause, so things can be that much neater. A celebratory ending can be great, but this has to be the most unearned such finale since the original Star Wars. As throngs of people cheer the game show victory and love randomly conquering all, I felt absolutely nothing. Why should I? I don’t know these people, and they only exist for validation of crowd-ticking impulses.
In fairness, Boyle scores some points early on in the childhood scenes, which breeze along with appealingly frenetic pacing and capture a joy and scariness about being young that’s universal. The child actors are uniformly better and more interesting than their adult counterparts. These scenes enjoy also a certain comic excitement that favorably recalls Trainspotting. (The cross-cutting with the weak Millionaire sequences undermines this a bit, sadly.) The gravity of these moments places emphasis on how disappointing it is later when Boyle spins the established stylistics around into mere feel-good flashiness. A montage in an early part of the film is set to M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” a joyously impassioned act of artistic unpredictability that places a movie like this to shame, no matter how good the editing is or how much Boyle professes to care about poor kids in slums.
Yet again, as easy as it is to bitch about Slumdog‘s limousine-liberal politics, it’s a copout because even if the film’s content was saintly, the falseness of the central relationship and the lack of any character or story-based reason for any fucking thing that happens would be the reason it rides away with such a feeling of futility… and its irksomely pat finale would be the reason it gets away with all that, understandably so.