Thursday, May 14, 2009

In Brief: SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008)


With Danny Boyle's Oscar-winner you either accept or don't accept. "It is written," as the film insists, or it isn't. You can indulge the belief in fate and destiny and happy endings except for the people who get shot, or you can't. It may come down to personal temperament. I try not to reject concepts out of hand, but Boyle was trying to do several things at once, and none of them turned out fully satisfactorily. It belongs to the gritty non-linear or otherwise structurally fragmented international genre that has given us stuff like Amores Perros, City of God, A Wonderful Night in Split and Gomorra, but not quite; and is partly Bollywood-inspired while withholding the full Bollywood experience until the end credits; and is of course a romantic fantasy of the kind Boyle has done before in A Life Less Ordinary, but more gritty and exotic. This may be a way of saying it's a personal rather than a generic film, but I still felt that Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy didn't do full justice to all the elements they were working with because they tried to fit them together too neatly.


Yet I can't say it was a bad film and I'm willing to concede that it just struck me the wrong way, despite the vivid direction and cinematography and guileless performances. Among the actors I was most impressed by Anil Kapoor as the most sinister game show host since Richard Dawson in The Running Man. He was prominent in what I thought was the film's most suspenseful scene. This was when Prem, the host of the Indian Millionaire show, appears to be feeding an answer to our hero, though we have reason to doubt his trustworthiness. I suspect this scene works better for American audiences than for British or Indian audiences because most of us will have no clue whatsoever what the right answer to the cricket question is. The film might have had a stronger finish had that been the final question. On the other hand, the teen and adult actors playing our hero Jamal's brother Salim are hampered by the script's inconsistent portrait of the character, having to veer from scumbag at one moment to fraternal self-sacrifice in the next.



Boyle has done better. Trainspotting and 28 Days Later remain his major contributions to the canon. There were better films made in 2008, and there was at least one better film nominated for Best Picture (Milk). Slumdog Millionaire is one of several relatively lackluster Best Picture winners from this decade, but it is at least a well-made film of too well-made a story, and it will keep Doyle working. That's a good thing.

3 comments:

Kevin J. Olson said...

I was really harsh on this film when I first saw it in the theater. I went so far as to call it a hyper-kinetic mess. However, I watched it a second time on DVD and I wasn't as annoyed by it as I was when I saw it in theater, but I still think the narrative is a mess.

I thought Boyle's idea to make this an interpolated tale really hurt the momentum of the film. I never quite cared about any of the characters because everything was happening so quickly. Also, I never quite bought his brother as a ruthless killer who then has the heart of gold at the end and does the right thing by letting the girl go. Meh.

Admittedly, I'm not much of Boyle fan; I really like his 28 Days Later, and actually, The Beach wasn't that bad...

Slumdog Millionaire still stands, in my opinion, as one of the greatest frauds in recent memory. There's nothing genuine or "gritty" about the movie because it's all filtered through this hyper-kinetic style that is so disingenuous; the aesthetics don't allow for the viewer to feel anything during the movie.

I remember thinking when that final montage happens: now THAT'S how it should have been done the whole film -- if Boyle would have eased up on the montages and extreme close-ups earlier in the film, then the final moment at the end (which was still a powerful moment for me) would have been the exclamation mark it was supposed to be. But really, I never cared much for Jamal or his journey...because Boyle never allowed me to feel anything due to the fact that the film was cut like a Michael Bay movie.

Anyway, sorry this turned into one long rant, but I wanted to say that you're lukewarm (am I reading that right?) feelings towards the film are kind of where I am with it now. I'm glad I watched it a second time, it made me rethink my initial panning of the film.

Your review is great, and wonderfully states what kind of works and what doesn't work. Slumdog Millionaire had a great story, but I think Boyle was the wrong man for the job.

Rev. Fred Phantom said...

I liked the film--I wasn't in love with it--but I found it entertaining. If it's worthy of best movie of the year I have no idea as I didn't see many 'new' movies last year. I liked The Wrestler better, I know that (was that nominated for best movie? I don't remember).

Samuel Wilson said...

Kevin: If Slumdog can be simultaneously too neat and a mess, I agree with you. The fact that the game show questions proceed in sync with the chronology of Jamal's life is just too much, for instance.

Rev. I can admire the craftsmanship in Slumdog without really being won over by it. The Wrestler wasn't nominated for Best Picture, but if it had been it should have won. I'm increasingly prepared to call it Best of 2008.