Slumdog Millionaire

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 12/01/08 15:37:01

"This year's overpraised 'foreign' film."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

As I write this, Mumbai is in the news for much less happy reasons than birthing a “slumdog” who gets a chance to win lots of rupees on a game show. In Danny Boyle’s "Slumdog Millionaire," set mainly in Mumbai, the lead character spends some of his boyhood as an impromptu tour guide, and the shots of the majestic Taj Mahal provoke an unintended chill.

The time may be ripe for a movie that instructs Westerners about the teeming streets and culture of Mumbai, but unfortunately Slumdog Millionaire isn’t that movie. For all its surface devotion to the grit and desperation of being poor in India, it hits too many Hollywood beats and often comes off as patronizing: See, the only way these people can rise from the rubble is to compete on a knock-off of a British game show.

The movie that’s being hyped everywhere as a “feel-good” film (and a strong contender for a Best Picture Oscar) opens with its young protagonist, Jamal (Dev Patel), being tortured by police. Feeling good yet? Jamal is being interrogated because he’s been cranking out the answers on India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and the smarmy host thinks he’s cheating. So, as a videotape of the game thus far plays at the police station, Jamal is asked how he could possibly have known this or that answer; we then flash back to his hardscrabble childhood, his exploits with brother Salim and innocent, angelic beauty Latika. It’s a facile structure, but it could prepare us for a fable that shows us how an uneducated kid takes street knowledge to the next level.

Disappointingly, though, Slumdog Millionaire becomes the kind of film in which the brothers are taken in by a Fagin-like villain, who blinds boys (to turn them into more heart-tugging beggars) and raises girls to be whores — he doesn’t have a mustache, or he’d twirl it. Later, when Jamal and Salim rescue Latika moments before she’s due to lose her virginity to a customer, the villain actually delivers this line: “Did you think you could just walk in here and take my prize?” And I thought, My God, I haven’t heard that one in years — although the plot thread reminded me of last year’s feel-good movie about swarthy squalor, The Kite Runner, in which the hero delves back into Afghanistan to save a boy from sexual slavery. The Kite Runner said that the best Afghanis were the most American at heart; Slumdog Millionaire says much the same about Indians. It’s a mercy Satyajit Ray didn’t live to see it.

Bizarrely, the most compelling stuff unfolds in the game-show studio, because it has that built-in tension that has made all incarnations of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? ratings hits; the rest of it plays like cliché-ridden exposition (ah, Jamal knows that Ben Franklin is on the hundred-dollar bill because...). So the implication is that we shallow moviegoers wouldn’t be interested in Jamal’s story without the hook of his trying for the 20-million-rupee jackpot. As for the allegedly transcendent love story, Latika is touched by Jamal’s kindness, and she’s apparently the only female he’s ever met (aside from his dear dead mother, killed during a Hindi-Muslim conflagration); I can see no other reason for the attraction. Jamal is forever rescuing her from one gangster or another; Freida Pinto, the model who plays the adult Latika, is lovely, but she has nothing to work with. Meanwhile, Danny Boyle’s hyperactive camera and rude-boy style strain to manipulate us into the emotions the script doesn’t honestly earn.

I mourn the dead of Mumbai, but "Slumdog Millionaire" turns the great city of 19 million into a steamy backdrop, and a barrier of beggars and gangsters coming between two ciphers. Mumbai deserves better, in life and in film.

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