Local Boy Made Good
2008 // UK - USA // Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan // November 15, 2008 // Theatrical Print
C - Best approached as a morsel of spun sugar and spice that's easy on both eyes and mind, Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan's Slumdog Millionaire is a contemporary fairy tale pitched at a music video tempo. Unfortunately, it's also a work so preoccupied with the sizzle of motion and the cleverness of its structure that it flits heedlessly into the worst offenses of the form. Slumdog's characters never scan as anything but wobbly archetypes, their motivations hastily drawn where the film-makers bother with motivation at all. Boyle and Tandan substitutes ghetto grubbiness and gloss for the shading that would lend the film volume. Consequently, Slumdog is sustained on manic energy and little else. While its shallowness and slipshod nature distract, the film still proves to be a pleasurable tale. In its most engaging moments, it permits the viewer to forget its threadbare credibility, urging us to giggle in delight as it crackles like a string of candy-colored firecrackers.
The film's premise is undeniably compelling: Jamal (Dev Patel), a chai wallah in a Mumbai call center, has reached the final question on the Hindi edition of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. The quiz show breaks for the night, and Jamal is picked up by the police, who surmise that this slum-bred orphan must be cheating. After working Jamal over with beatings and electrical shocks, a detective—Indian veteran Irrfan Khan, as captivating as ever here—demands to know how he climbed his way to the 20 million rupee question. Jamal is not a whiz kid from the wrong side of the tracks; he's just a working stiff with an astonishing story. He walks the police through a tape of his appearance on the show, explaining with the aid of flashbacks how the events of his life supplied him with each answer. And what a thoroughly Dickensian existence Jamal has led: begging and grifting with his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal), narrow escapes, religious riots, monstrous crime lords, and a girl he's never stopped longing for, the ludicrously kind-hearted and gorgeous Lakita (Freida Pinto).
It's a seductive approach, structurally speaking, inviting the viewer to lean hungrily into Jamal's story, each trivia question a puzzle waiting to be unlocked by the unlikely details of his life. Indeed, the police officers themselves pivot from scoffing skepticism to spellbound wonder as Jamal spins his tale. However, it's not clear what remains after the telling other than a cunning contraption studded with Just-So Stories. Boyle and Tandan lean flabbily on Destiny (with a capital "D") as a motif and narrative pillar throughout Slumdog. They are so enamored with its utility as a shortcut that they exhibit virtually no interest in dissecting it thematically. Fine: Jamal is fated to win the quiz show jackpot and he and Lakita are Meant For Each Other. And? There's a frustratingly hollowness to the film once the sparkle of its presentation fades, and beyond the glee that audiences will likely reap from any rags-to-riches tale, Indian garb or not, it's not clear what Boyle and Tandan are striving for. The film's most fascinating potential lies in its scrappy refutation of the Great Man Theory of history, positing that sometimes someone just happens to be in the right place at the right time. Unfortunately, Boyle and Tandan's cloying and insubstantial fixation on Destiny inhibits this more ambitious reading of Slumdog.
The relationship between Jamal and Lakita is emblematic of the film's broader problems. Other than the bare-bones facts of the tribulations that they have shared, Boyle and Tandan offer nothing to establish the allegedly epic, storybook love between the two, and neither Patel nor Pinto do any heavy lifting to convince us of it. They convey characters plucked from a Cliff Notes summary, and that's just not enough in a film that yearns for our affection so desperately. Call me a curmudgeon, but perhaps something stiffer than a mere assertion of love is called for in a film that is fundamentally premised on romance? For all of Slumdog's cinematic bombast, there's a failure of imagination at the intersection of story and character. In at least one scene, it provides for a laughable reversal that is hand-waved away by the need for a pre-ordained resolution. Destiny and all that, I suppose.
All that said, there's no denying that Slumdog is one of the most shamelessly blissed-out films of the year, particularly in its celebration of the excitement and terror of childhood, and to a lesser extent its indulgence of the (seemingly) epic tragedies of adolescence. The film's pulsing energy is suffused with a richly realized and contradictory sense of fragility mated with vigor, one that gets your pulse racing and your toe tapping. Boyle and Tandan don't paper over the miseries of slum life in the developing world, but they also resist working exclusively in a gloomy palette. Kids, after all, can discover joy and thrills even in the shadow of garbage piles. More generally, the film straddles the paradox of contemporary India gracefully, touching on the nation's problems--poverty, crime, fanaticism, pockets of runaway modernization--while never striking a tone of condescension, mean-spiritedness, or self-righteousness. Jamal's Mumbai is not Disneyfied, but neither is it politicized to the detriment of the film's fairy tale tone. With its game shows and movie stars alongside blind urchins and shit piles, the setting conveys both the ugly familiarity and uncanny twinkle (depending on which way you turn it) that the film's fanciful narrative craves.
In the final analysis, I'm compelled to compare Slumdog's merits to those of an amusing anecdote told with substantial flair, and in this respect the film more than satisfies. Like any suspiciously tidy story, however, it starts to unravel once you begin picking at its stray threads. It's probably best to just take the grins that Slumdog offers and leave it at that.