Danny Boyle’s film leaves you breathless, exhausted
by Jason Blair
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE: Directed by Danny Boyle. Written by Simon Beaufoy, based on the novel Q&A by Vikas Swarup. Cinematography, Anthony Dod Mantle. Music, A.R. Rahman. Starring Dev Patel, Madhur Mittal, Freida Pinto, Anil Kapoor and Irrfan Khan. Fox Searchlight, 2008. R. 120 minutes.
|Jamal (Dev Patel) and Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor) in Slumdog Millionaire
While speaking to Charlie Rose recently, Fareed Zakaria, the editor for Newsweek International, said that the Mumbai massacre revealed a fundamental schism of Indian life. “The Indian private sector functions fantastically,” he said, “and the Indian government does not.” Zakaria, a man of astonishing intellect, has a knack for making complex issues appear simple — a quality that Mumbai-based Slumdog Millionaire shares, even if its director Danny Boyle does not. It was with Zakaria’s insight in mind that I approached Slumdog Millionaire, a film that at this moment is only slightly less hot than the sun. I was under a mistaken impression that as a film about two orphan boys (and the orphan girl one of them loves), Slumdog Millionaire might contain some kind of tiny emotional core rooted in the uniquely miserable squalor of Indian poverty. Instead, it turned out to be Disney by way of Dickens, but Dickens at this decibel does not a great film make.
As Slumdog opens, Jamal (Dev Patel) is a white-knuckled contestant on the Hindi game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Jamal is one question away from the jackpot when the film whip-cuts to him being tortured the night before. A “slumdog,” or street urchin, with no formal education, Jamal undergoes a little shock-and-awe to his nipples when the show goes on hiatus for the night. The rationale is that the torture will expose Jamal’s cheating heart, ending his run from pauper to most unlikely prince. But the Slumdog story is a repudiation of reductive, classist thinking — an ironic stance considering that for the next two hours, we’re reductively yanked backward to witness the moments in Jamal’s life that provided him the Millionaire answers.While the film does an able job of looping the narratives together, Boyle’s energy, as usual, is borderline aggressive and pushy. The film has more sprints than the Olympics, for one thing, a fact one might interpret as thrusting, hypnotic authenticity — or stylization pressed to the point of superficiality.
Speaking of verisimilitude, the arc of Jamal’s life bends not towards pain and suffering, as you might expect, but rather a world of fun and travel and only the occasional minor mishap. He and his brother Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail) bruise but never break while robbing trains, sleeping in dumps, even stealing shoes from the Taj Mahal. But all the while Jamal longs for Latika (played, as an older woman, by the lovely Freida Pinto), the girl he and Salim abandoned when they escaped from an orphan camp. (Don’t ask about their mother. She only exists to be killed while they watch.) Now 18, Jamal tracks down Latika and Salim, both of whom are in service to Mumbai’s most dangerous gangster. After a brief audience with Latika, Jamal hatches a plan to win her back. It involves appearing on a television show. I hope I haven’t given it away.
Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) encases a riddle at the heart of Slumdog Millionaire — what is Jamal doing on the show to begin with? — but it’s so incredibly obvious that the revelation simply thuds. With Dickens, at least, you know the tramp will triumph, but it’s all coal dust and gruel in the getting there, not this phony commercialized lyricism of Boyle’s. In Dickens, street urchins act like street urchins, not kids at Camp Winnipesauke. These days, there’s nothing you can say that Boyle won’t manage to say louder. Boyle’s a yeller; Spike Lee is a ventriloquist by comparison. Boyle never should have left Scotland, where he set Shallow Grave and the unforgettable Trainspotting, for more exotic locales like Thailand and India. In Slumdog, he finds himself in Australia territory, with a similar result: When you try to wrap a child’s tale around a searing social issue, you can end up ruining our sympathy for both. I expected some degree of fantasy, but I also expected to have to think.
Slumdog Millionaire opens Friday, Dec. 19, at the Bijou.