by Brandon Colvin
Why is Slumdog Millionaire an overrated piece of middlebrow, pseudo-liberal, ultimately despicable crap?
A: It is politically irresponsible.
B: It is stylistically hollow.
C: It is dramatically tactless.
D: It is rife with mind-numbing clichés.
Before you answer, I would like to delve more thoroughly into each option. Sadly, I’ll have to do so without the use of serendipitously garnered information collected throughout my supposedly vibrant, allegedly life-affirming, and decidedly exotic adolescence amongst poverty, violence, and prostitution.
In lieu of such an uplifting circumstance, I’ll be using Roger Ebert’s review of Slumdog Millionaire (which slathers on praise in a manner indicative of much of the critical reception regarding the film) as a periodic springboard to rail against; though, if you’d like, you could read any of the myriad reviews by critics who seem to be consistently enamored with the type of multi-culti, artsy-posturing, issue-sidestepping drivel epitomized by Danny Boyle’s most recent misstep (see: Lou Lumenick, Joe Morgenstern, Ty Burr, Claudia Puig, etc.).
A: At one point in Slumdog Millionaire, protagonist Jamal Malik (played by Dev Patel, amongst others during various stages of youth) comments to a duped American couple, which he and his brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal, et al), have just hoodwinked into having their Mercedes jacked, “You wanted to see the real India. This is it,” prompting the American man to self-righteously proclaim, “Well, here’s a taste of the real America, son,” while comically thrusting a wad of cash into Jamal’s hand with condescending glee. The scene casts the Americans as being out of touch with the political and social realities of Jamal’s Mumbai environs – laughably naïve and imbued with an overabundance of suburbanite white guilt. Ironically, this is the exact reaction Slumdog presents to the very same problems.
Repeatedly, Slumdog confronts its audience with images of brutality in an effort to effectively articulate the deplorable conditions of what Ebert calls “the real India,” something that the film’s “universal appeal will present . . . to millions of moviegoers for the first time.” For starters, Jamal’s mother is murdered in an attack on their Muslim slum by Hindu extremists, Jamal and Salim become poverty stricken children living in a garbage dump with the pre-pubescent version of Jamal’s love interest, Latika (Freida Pinto, et al), are then rescued by a corrupt man who basically pimps out children as beggars (blinding some with acid to get more cash) and then later actually pimps out Latika. Of course, there are also the flashily-edited beatings and electrical torture from the police that Jamal endures when he is accused of cheating on the Indian version of the game show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” which lends the film its title and gimmicky premise (poor kid wins money because it’s his destiny, overcomes obstacles and gets girl through sheer willpower and cunning, as is related through a series of flashbacks to his rough-and-tumble childhood). Oh, and the gangs. Yeah, there are gangs too. Salim joins one and becomes a homicidal sonuvabitch before redeeming himself through self-sacrifice (duh). Okay, so we’ve got religious violence, poverty, orphans, homelessness, child abuse and mutilation, prostitution, gangs, and police corruption/brutality/they fucking electrocute him with no evidence whatsoever, and how does Slumdog Millionaire propose to solve, alleviate, confront, or even deal with any of these deep, deep social and political horrors? It doesn’t. At all. Jamal just gets 20,000 rupees and Latika’s hot ass, then they do a Bollywood-inspired dance that seems to wash away all of the harshness of the preceding two hours and cement the indestructibility of their romantic connection. The end. The film throws money and a girl at India’s problems, in the spirit of the ignorant American couple.
Is this the “real India” Ebert speaks of? One in which the apotheosis of heroism is Jamal, “who rises from rags to riches on the strength of his lively intelligence?” Sounds more like a Westernized fairy-tale of individualized capitalistic success. While Jamal gets rich, gets kissed, and boogies, the brutal India of the majority of the film is left behind – ignored, unresolved, and ultimately merely a manipulative tool of the filmmakers used to elicit the shock and horror that is the mark of the proverbial serious, Oscar-worthy film about foreign lands (think Last King of Scotland (2006), Babel (2006), Hotel Rwanda (2004), City of God (2002)). The only solution offered by Slumdog Millionaire is, “Hey, um, go on a game show” and be just like Jamal who “improvises his way up through the world and remembers everything he has learned” (Ebert), yadda yadda, good self-sufficient, crafty capitalists always win. And that’s it.
B: Aesthetically, Slumdog comes across as if Boyle, editor Chris Dickens, and usually brilliant cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle have done their damndest to design a film like a 17-year-old who just saw his/her first Wong Kar-Wai/Christopher Doyle movie. The major problem with this approach is that nobody but the tandem behind Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995) can make those films – everything else appears to be explicit imitation, visual trickery, and immature grasping for the semblance of a valuable style; Slumdog Millionaire is no exception.
Full of camera tricks, canted angles, extreme framings, slow-mo jitters, and slam-bang editing, Slumdog is nothing if not flashy. Ebert describes the film as having “dazzling cinematography, breathless editing, driving music and headlong momentum to explode with narrative force, stirring in a romance at the same time” and considering that I know he has seen Wong Kar-Wai films and understands what meaningful style is, I’m shocked by his lack of critical language. The film’s flamboyance seems to be an attempt to cover up the lack of any real formal inspiration behind Boyle’s choices. Rather than a visual interpretation of the bleary romanticism found at the core of Wong’s signature films, Boyle’s aesthetics exist for their own sake – whiz-banging just to demonstrate their own whiz-bangery. Slumdog’s visual construction is overt: the camera rests in unusual places just to highlight how unusual those places are for camera placement; the film’s extensive use of crosscutting is heavy-handed and a bit elementary, particularly the opening juxtaposition of Jamal’s torture and his appearance on the game show; at other times, the editing structure is more concerned with building to and accentuating a clever transition than actually establishing a narrative flow or tone. Boyle, Dickens, and Mantle miss the point in a major way throughout Slumdog, stringing together a series of would-be-novelties and attention-callers that seem to be chosen for their conspicuousness instead of their potential connection to the film’s thematic concerns or moral ambition (which are questionable in themselves). “But Brandon, isn’t it unrealistic to expect films to always achieve thematic-aesthetic synthesis?” Two things: if they are front-runners for almost every Best Picture award, no, it is not unrealistic, and there are many films released this year that actually do achieve it: Paranoid Park, Flight of the Red Balloon, Ballast, Synecdoche, New York, and Speed Racer, to name a few.
C: Ever felt the feeling of faux tension? It is powerfully underwhelming. Slumdog Millionaire exploits it to the max: the chase scenes all feel like foregone conclusions, the confrontations are all half-baked, sexuality is basically a non-factor, and the film’s various races against the clock are all protracted to the point of ludicrousness. Any sense of real drama or “headlong momentum” is completely sucked out of Slumdog by its unavoidable transparency. Everyone knows how every scene will conclude because everyone has watched every scene scores of times before. Ebert writes, “The film's surface is so dazzling that you hardly realize how traditional it is underneath.” Maybe it's just me, but I sure realized the fuck out of it. When Jamal encounters his various obstacles, it’s obvious that he will escape by the hair of his chinny-chin-chin. Repeatedly, the film toys with the fact that he might not, but it’s only a ruse, a method of stretching scenes beyond their limit, an attempt to spin a thriller out of a clunker. The apex of the film’s awkward striving for actual intensity comes during the final half hour when the stakes of Jamal’s game show appearance are upped (as if anyone in the theater actually thought he wouldn’t win the full 20,000 rupees or miss out on hooking-up with Latika).
During Slumdog’s supposed climax, Jamal uses his “Phone-A-Friend” lifeline on the last question, hoping to call Salim’s phone for the answer to a question about Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, an event that is hamfistedly foreshadowed in a scene taking place during the boys’ childhood. Frustratingly, Salim gives his phone (the only number Jamal knows) to Latika, knowing that Jamal will call her and get to speak with her – his reason for going on the show in the first place. Jamal does not know this. Latika does not know that she is Jamal’s lifeline. When she steps out of her vehicle to watch Jamal with a crowd of onlookers surrounding the television sets in an electronics store – having escaped with Salim’s help from Javed (Mahesh Manjrekar), her gangster boyfriend and Salim’s underworld boss – she leaves the phone in the car. Jamal calls. The phone rings, and rings, and rings, and rings, and rings, and rings, and rings, endlessly. Oh no, will Latika get to the phone in time? Of course, but only after the game show’s crooked host, Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor), says something to the effect of, “Looks like nobody’s going to answer. You’re on your own” and commands the call to be disconnected. Knowing the rules of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” it’s obvious from the film’s inception that the final question must be resolved by a “Phone-A-Friend” to Latika. From the time early in the film that The Three Musketeers is mentioned, it’s obvious that the final question will be about it. At the moment Salim gives Latika his phone, it’s obvious it will result in a near-disaster of misunderstanding and last-minute rescue. And, as soon as the phone rings, it’s obvious how this rescue will take place. The whole thing ends up being one giant, simplistic fill-in-the-blank, a predestined procedural with no sense of how to proceed tactfully – a statement true of the entirety of Slumdog Millionaire.
D: Sappy. Cheesy. Doughy. Tasteless. The culinary adjectives pile up when considering how indigestible Danny Boyle’s film is. It’s all either bitter tragedies or saccharine platitudes, both being dull and flat to the palate. If Slumdog handles anything in a way that is genuinely fresh or crisp or breathtaking, I sure as hell missed it. Everything in the film feels trite or typically exploitative: the lovesick hero making his picaresque way back to his immaculate damsel, the overzealous police officers who come to sympathy once they let the poor street urchin explain himself, the wayward brother falling into the wrong crowd only to repent via a single sacrificial act, the shocking violence used more for visceral jabs than anything resembling complex storytelling, the persevering orphan who sees the sunshine through the shit and never dips his toe into anything that might make him truly blameworthy, the heartless gangster chauvinist with business ambitions and pockets full of power. Trust me, there are more.
Slumdog’s conclusion is the narrative equivalent of a whipped cream dollop with a cherry on top – weightless, fluffy, and strikingly sugar sweet. Jamal not only gets the girl, manages to save his brother’s dignity, wins a fortune, unites an entire country, transcends class systems, and shows that money comes to those who don’t really want it (he’s in it for the chick, man); he also shakes his ass amidst a sizeable sea of bright-eyed, super-smiley would-be Bollywood extras. The film’s aforementioned coda, feeling like the parodic finale of the much better The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), induced me to laugh out loud – not out of joy or celebratory exuberance as in Judd Apatow’s comedy, but because I thought it had to be a joke. Can anyone really make something that ridiculous and get away with it? Can anyone really think that deserves an Oscar or even a mention among the year’s best films? In Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle has either made a miserable mess of sentiment and unearned optimism or the most straight-faced satire I have ever seen. I highly doubt the latter.
Oh yeah. I forgot the last option. This might make the question a little easier.
E: All of the above.
And if you saw that coming from a mile away, Slumdog Millionaire will make you feel like a damned clairvoyant.