Monday, December 1, 2008

Just Believe: Slumdog Millionaire

Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire begins with a multiple-choice question for the audience. To answer it, you won’t need a lifeline. This film, about an unlikely contender on a TV game show in India, unfolds on the set of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, but it borrows its structure from Jeopardy! We get the answers, and then we get the questions. Some films thrive on mysterious conclusions, but not this one. This is a movie about fate, and thus suspense isn’t found in doubt about what will happen but in the anticipation of how things will happen. Slumdog Millionaire isn’t a destination, it’s an experience, and a thrilling one at that.

To enjoy it you must be willing to give yourself over to it, and in this age of cynicism and sarcasm that isn’t a given. These days it’s as if we want our endings happy, but not too happy. We want to revel in hope, and yet we get uncomfortable when that hope is contrasted with visceral, true-to-life suffering. It’s as if we don’t want to acknowledge that some of the world’s greatest evils might be susceptible to change, if only we could believe enough to try and make a difference, if only we could believe enough to care, to love, to dream. If this notion seems too mushy to you, well, that’s the pervasive anti-sentimental sentiment in our culture that Slumdog Millionaire is up against. This is a film that asks you to leave your gloom at the door and bask in its warmth. Which isn’t to say that it lacks chilly breezes.

This epic of the heart begins with an image of heartlessness. Teenager Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is one question away from the grand prize on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, and so he’s spending the night in a Mumbai prison. Confused? Jamal is a mere chai-wallah. A tea-boy. A peasant. A slumdog. His kind isn’t supposed make it onto the show in the first place. Become a millionaire? Not a chance. And yet Jamal might do just that, unless the police can torture him into admitting that he’s cheating. Because Jamal must be cheating. It’s that or he’s a genius, or something else: fate. Like I said, this is a multiple-choice question you don’t need help to answer. It’s a gimme. But the more challenging question persists: How? How could fate get Jamal one correct answer away from becoming a millionaire?

To answer those more important questions, we flash back to Jamal’s childhood, where the bulk of the drama unfolds. We see a religious cleansing raid, an escape from slaveholders and a scamming operation at the Taj Mahal. We see betrayals, reunions and tragedies. We see heroes and villains. Together these ingredients coalesce to make Jamal the young man he is: uneducated but life learned. In matters of fate, that’s wisdom enough. Boyle’s film, based on a novel by Vikas Swarup and a screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, gives us a character in tragic circumstances who refuses to become part of the tragedy. Jamal’s is a life defined by achievements of the impossible. When you’ve saved yourself from poverty, homelessness and slavery, becoming a millionaire on a game show doesn’t seem so unattainable.

Does he win? Well, to call the film predictable is to be accurate while missing the point. By such measurements, Man On Wire is predictable. So is Milk. Heck, so is Batman Returns. Simple? Sure, Slumdog Millionaire is that too. So are most love stories: You find someone, you fall in love, your love meets obstacles, your love finds a way. Slumdog Millionaire’s beauty isn’t in the tale, it’s in the telling. Boyle’s previous successes have been thematically diverse: the darkly drug-obsessed Trainspotting, the sweetly uplifting Millions, the adrenaline-fueled sci-fi adventure Sunshine, to name a few. What these films have in common is conviction. Like Jamal, Boyle dives in. The only way to survive wearing your heart on your sleeve is to wear it proudly. Some audiences will be turned off by the blatancy of the emotion. Others will be won over by it. In that respect, Slumdog Millionaire could wind up being as divisive as 2004’s Crash.

And that isn’t the only thing Boyle’s film has in common with Haggis’ Best Picture winner. Slumdog Millionaire isn’t as sermonizing as Crash, yet it might also be accused of oversimplification by those who take offense to the juxtaposition of real-world horror and fairy tale triumph. Then again, Slumdog Millionaire is just that: a fairy tale. That it can also feel acutely truthful in portraying the devastating gap between India’s haves and have-nots is to its credit – a page out of the playbook of Pan’s Labyrinth. Boyle and co-director Loveleen Tandan are guilty of optimism, yes, but they don’t turn a blind eye to the fetid corners of the film’s setting. Utilizing the color palette as effectively as any movie this side of Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited or Tarsem’s The Fall, the directors and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle do for the slums of Mumbai what City Of God did for the ghettos of Rio de Janeiro and The Constant Gardener did for the shantytowns of Nairobi. If the jubilant conclusion of Slumdog Millionaire is obvious from the beginning, so too are the horrors we pass through along the way.

The downside of this narrowly-focused time-spanning narrative is that the characters age without evolving. Three actors play Jamal, his brother Salim and his love interest Latika to chronicle the characters’ physical development. But only Salim sees significant shifts in personality, and usually right when the plot needs a jolt. Jamal and Latika, meanwhile, are one-dimensionally love-bound. When late in the film Jamal confronts his brother about the whereabouts of Latika, Salim responds with appropriate exasperation: “Still!?” Sure, Jamal is as single-minded as Frodo on the way to Mount Doom, but can you blame him? Freida Pinto, as the eldest Latika, is Grace Kelly-beautiful. It would be easier to win a game show than to forget her, and who would want to try?

The same goes for the film. As Slumdog Millionaire rolls past the 90-minute mark, it becomes increasingly formulaic as the vivacity of childhood is replaced by the platitudes of teen romance, and as grudge-holding villains are reduced from petrifying to pathetic (a mistake that doomed The Kite Runner). But there’s a spiritual beauty to this film that can render someone willingly blind to its faults. If Slumdog Millionaire doesn’t win you over with its drama, it’ll get you with the rousing closing credits, which alone make the movie worth seeing twice. Pulsating with a soundtrack featuring M.I.A’s “Paper Planes,” Boyle’s film reverberates with vitality. To let it in is to live, love, dream and, just for a moment, know all the answers.


Mark said...

We just got around to seeing "Slumdog" last night -- wanted to sneak it in before the Oscars -- and so I'm just getting to your fine review.

I think you perfectly capture the movie's appeal, although I think you liked it far better than I did. The narrative structure is brilliant, a couple of the childhood scenes are memorably good and several of the performances are quite good. In the end though, I thought that the film didn't rise above its clever storytelling gimmick. It's boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl, with a bunch of thrills and drama along the way. Fine, and enjoyable, but I don't need to jump through a pit of shit to figure out that love conquers all, blah blah blah.

It didn't take me anywhere new (emotionally or intellectually, anyhow).

I won't be surprised if "Slumdog" wins best picture this weekend. Like "Crash," it'll appeal to voters who like their poignant life lessons wrapped up in a tidy bow. If so, OK, but it'll be a rip for truly great movies like "Revolutionary Road," "The Wrestler" or (sorry, Jason) "Synecdoche, New York."

Jason Bellamy said...

Mark: Actually, at this point I wish "Synecdoche" were up for Best Picture. I don't expect much from The Academy, but its top five this year is pretty underwhelming.

"Synecdoche" is still a (grating) failure in my book, based on one viewing (eventually, I'll give it another), but at least it's bold. I respect that.

I don't want to seem like I'm retracting my response to "Slumdog," because I enjoyed it, and not ashamed of that. Still, I see it as the kind of refreshing movie experience that you want to have at least once a year. A palate cleanser, of sorts. Doesn't mean I want it remembered as the best film of 2008, because it certainly isn't.