Sunday, April 5, 2009
A Frank Review of "Slumdog Millionaire"(2008)
The Short Version? Dickensian Indians/Colonized Bollywood
What Is It? Melodramedy.
Who's In It? No Honkeys.
Should I See It? Yes.
My girlfriend had been wanting to see this Best Picture Oscar Winner since the days it was looking to be strictly art-house fare, so we caught the very tail end of the theatrical run before it hit home video. Since I'd heard for months what a crowd-pleaser it was, I assumed it was just the sort of opiate for the masses I usually have no taste for. In fact, the opening scenes are entirely too cartoonishly cute, but when the bitter hits the sweet square in the kisser with a baseball bat, I'll admit I had to reconsider my initial impression. As the film continued to offer subtitled Hindi dialogue from true life slum kids and some truly diabolical goings-on, I was drawn into this desperate, engrossing world. Orphaned brothers Jamal and Salim grow into a pair of teenage rogues as they brave exploitation, mutilation, and other violations that only enter the equation under the worst or most melodramatic of circumstances. These young child actors perform with all of their hearts and awkward bonafides, earning monolithic good will that carries the audience through the rest of the picture. In the middle third, the youths are replaced with less believable teenaged actors, and less quaffable circumstances. The children's existence is dire but transfixing and redemptive, where as teens they fall into hoary territory with painfully self-conscious acting. Still, you're already involved with these characters, and the film remains entertaining and affecting, so you forgive its shortcomings.
The picture had by this point been sewn together by a series of recollections from a young adult Jamal, as he was tortured by police during an interrogation. Jamal had performed more than a bit too well on the game show "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" for an ignorant guttersnipe, so the flashbacks served to explain how he was able to draw upon his incredible experiences to answer seemingly impossible questions. It's a clever device, and unlike some critics, I did not find it sapping of tension. Up until the last third, the flick remained riveting. However, the actor playing Jamal is clean cut and speaks perfect English. The skinny childhood love Latika had grown into one of the most beautiful women you can imagine, a cross between Rosario Dawson and Eva Longoria. Mobsters and double-crosses and starcrossed lovers and shitty MTV editing had invaded the space. In an imaginary sequence, the film had almost literally jumped the shark, and is utterly reliant on the goodwill engendered earlier to overlook a screenplay turn toward tripe.
I've never been a big fan of director Danny Boyle. I find Trainspotting to be one of the most overrated films of my generation, 28 Days Later... pathetically derivative, The Beach mildly amusing, and the less said of A Life Less Ordinary the better. Only Shallow Grave really worked for me, and Boyle's portions of this film continue my feeling that the director leans too much toward style and cliché as "homage." The influence of sillier, dated Bollywood fare is all over his portion, not to mention a full-on tongue kiss to old school Hollywood. Most egregious, if not outright offensive, is the closing credits dance sequence. Set to the tune of the remarkably stupid, inexplicable Oscar winner "Jai Ho," a "Macarena" for the '00s, this number is further marred with comic book hyperbolic credit text. I'd also like to take this moment to demand a indefinite moratorium on the use of M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" on any film soundtrack. Co-director Loveleen Tandan seems the talent to watch, even after having suffered through her misguided interpretation of Vanity Fair. Let's leave the English to Boyle and the Indian to Tandan, and hope for the best in future endeavors.
Criticisms aside, and I do mean even in the face of much to complain about, Slumdog Millionaire remains a viewing pleasure that offers somewhat cultured comfort food for our troubled times. This is classic, heart-string-tugging cinema that works on any but the most hardened viewer. The returns may diminish as the roles rotated and the celluloid rolls on, but there's so much spirit here, you'll likely be carried along with a smile on your face at the closing. It's always big, it's often ridiculous, but it's truly worth your time.
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