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Slumdog Millionaire

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 12/18/08 14:40:11

"A garish mess, and that's my final answer."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

“Slumdog Millionaire” is being marketed as a feel-good fairy tale, but the upbeat ending comes after two hours of feel-bad turmoil. But it’s not even good feel-bad turmoil; the ugliness (both emotional and physical) is weakly contrived, and director Danny Boyle brings a distracting visual bombast not seen in his work since “Trainspotting,” overwhelming the story with unnecessary flourishes that put off the viewer even more.

The film is adapted from Vikas Swarup’s novel “Q and A,” and it’s surprising to see writer Simon Beaufoy’s name on the screenplay. His beloved script for “The Full Monty” was an exercise in sweet simplicity and gentle personal humor; his “Slumdog” screenplay, meanwhile, is noisy, clumsy, and overly busy. There are stretches where the script seems to get in a screaming match with itself - which scene can grate the loudest?

We follow various interwoven stories, all involving the troubled life of Jamal Malik (played in various stages of his young life by Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Tanay Hemant Chheda, and Dev Patel), a former street urchin from Mumbai who now earns a living serving tea at a local call center. The hook is that Jamal just won ten million rupees on the Hindi version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” (presented here in English, as is much of the movie; the dialogue switches from English to Hindi at seemingly random, illogical times, but I suppose that makes more sense than having the game show broadcast live, which reveals either a vast poetic license or a naïve understanding of how television works), making him a national hero on the eve of his final appearance, and the top twenty million rupee question. Between shows, Jamal is kidnapped by the police, who attempt to torture him into admitting that he’s cheating.

Ah, but he’s not cheating. Instead, he’s just had the dumb luck of having every question asked relate to a specific experience in his miserable life. As the police replay the videotape of each question, Jamal flashes back (and forth, and back again, and so on) to his days in the slums. Here, we get an update on “Oliver Twist,” with the boy and his older brother Salim watching their mother die at the hands of a mob; they later team up with a cartoonish Fagin who rules with an iron fist - he even blinds children to make them more pitiable on the streets. Eventually, the two escape and make their way to the Taj Mahal, where they steal shoes and charge gullible tourists for phony tours of the place.

There’s something honest about the revelation that Jamal and Salim have never seen, or even heard of, the Taj Mahal. It’s a smart moment illustrating the cultural and educational divide in India. But the script squanders this notion all too quickly, jumping instead to a quickly-paced bit of lightheartedness in which the brothers abandon their awe and curiosity and use their quick street wits to scam tourists, a jokey segment that doesn’t quite charm the way it wants. The film has a depressing lack of interest in the few interesting portions of its own story.

Throughout his adventures, Jamal regrets abandoning his sweetheart, Latika. He sets off to find her, saving her from the clutches of the same Fagin they long ago escaped. But Salim, who has grown bitter and violent, takes Latika for himself. Years later, Salim (Madhur Mittal) is a top man in the Mumbai mafia, Latika (Freida Pinto) toils for the crime boss, and Jamal sets out to find them both once more.

All of this implies rags-to-riches sweetness, with Jamal and Latika uniting at long last. But such a triumph is held until the final few minutes, when we’re tossed a crummy faux-uplifting rush-to-your-side finale straight out of Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. (The closing credits, meanwhile, feature a big jokey Bollywood dance number, marking one of the most schizophrenic endings in modern cinema history. What is this, “The 40 Year Old Virgin”? How in the world does this movie think it deserves a self-mocking sing-along credits sequence?) Until that finale, we’re given piles of cheap melancholy and overplayed drabness, a sort of “look how miserable these people have it” melodrama whose very smugness and shoddiness prevent us from caring about these characters.

This is not to say there’s no good drama to be found in this situation; on the contrary, a great story could surely be told about these slums, and the nation’s harsh line between the haves and have-nots. But Beaufoy packs his screenplay with caricatures and lazy formula (the gangsters and hooligans and corrupt cops are all made from the cheapest cliché), while Boyle’s overly kinetic style hampers the human side of the tale. The director once said he hoped to capture the energy that’s present in the slums, but all the energy here feels fake, concocted, untrue: we never get to feel the crackle of human closeness born from poverty, because Boyle never stops jittering his camera, or cutting from past to present to future and back again, or having kids scream. (And oh, how they scream. All that yelling is present to hide the poor performances of the young actors, and if Boyle’s quick cuts won’t give you a headache, these kids will.)

What a story like this requires is a gentle subtlety, but Boyle is certainly not gentle and far from subtle. Here is a film that uses a young boy covered head to toe in liquid human waste for quaint nostalgia. Here is a film that tries to pass off trashy, hackneyed gang-life subplots as genuine human drama. And here is a film that hopes the concocted suspense of a TV game show will supply it with genuine emotional tension. “Slumdog Millionaire” is as gaudy and as shallow as the quiz show that inspired it.

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