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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire: Review

I have a contrary nature, and I'm not exactly proud of it. I don't like the idea that my estimation of the worthiness of a piece of art or literature or cinema can be predetermined by the amount of praise it has garnered. When I first heard the idea behind Slumdog Millionaire (if you haven't heard by now, a poor kid is one question away from the top prize on India's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and is forced to explain how he knew the answers) I was mildly intrigued, mostly, to be honest, out of my love of trivia. But then the awards and the fawning praise piled up, and I began to get nervous. The reactionary places in my brain were overheating, desperate to say "OVERRATED!" and "How in the hell can this be #34 on IMDb's Top 250!

I decided to give it a chance, mostly because I got to the theater too late for Frost/Nixon but at least partly in the hope that it really would be deserving of the hoopla. I'm sorry to say that I just don't get it. I guess 95& of Rottentomatoes movie reviewers can be wrong.

I think I've explained before that if I go to a movie theater to watch a movie, I'm automatically inclined to like the picture. The atmosphere is very persuasive, the largness of the images is impresive, and the largeness of the price I'm paying leads me to want to get a good value out of the experience. On TV, I'm much more objective. The fact that I saw Slumdog in the theater and came away so dissatisfied is telling, I think.

Now that I've disposed of my biases both in and out of the movie's favor, on to the film itself. Unlike most people, my main criticism isn't thematic or based on a desire to tell people what they can and can't put in a movie. I don't believe the movie is intent on being "poverty porn" and I disagree with the notion, proposed by some Indians but more by people who think it makes them multicultural to bitch on behalf of other races, that it is somehow wrong to showcase the poor of India in a movie. I think that a movie should really only try to tell one story well, and a movie that tries to depict all of India in a fair and balanced manner sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.

I also don't really mean the framing device wherein Jamal's life teaches him the answers to these questions, even though the notice that it did so chronologically in a practically unbroken narrative makes the device that much more unlikely.

My objection is that, even given the allowances the movie blatantly demands when it calls itself a feel-good fairy tale, that the movie itself is uninteresting, vapid, and practically devoid of dramatic moments.

This is largely the fault of starting the movie with Jamal one question away from the top prize. Throughout the quiz show scenes, we know with unerring certainty that Jamal will get the right answer. On top of that, because of the film's marketing campaign, it is impossible to even suspect for one moment that Jamal won't get the girl in the end.

To illustrate my point, I knew within probably 10 minutes what the final question would be. The only question we don't know Jamal will be able to correctly answer is ruined very early. Also, I'll avoid spoilers, but the scene is so poorly thought out and lazily conceived that I was able to think of at least three better resolutions.

The dialogue is also incredibly weak. The last lines of the movie, meant to be a capstone to this supposedly remarkable, fairy-tale journey, are so lame that I involuntarily rolled my eyes. At no point did Latika (the female lead) say anything that made her an interesting character, or demonstrated why Jamal was so intent on her and her alone. I mean, yeah, she's very attractive, but that's about it.

The movie's over-reliance on destiny was offensive to me. Any unlikely occurence, any ridiculourly corny plot contrivance could be wiped away with the "It is written" canard.

This is a movie that is getting worse every time I think about it. When I left the theater it was just an ok movie that was getting over-hyped, but it just keeps unraveling in my mind. And I didn't want to hate it, really I didn't and I probably still don't. I don't think it would be healthy to hate this movie. There are some funny scenes, some heartwarming ones (until you think about them, anyway) and the visuals are nice.

It gets a 5.9 for these. If it wins Best Picture, I'm dropping it to 3.5

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