“Hold up, you’ve got just a little masala on your chin there.”
I was very excited about seeing Slumdog Millionaire. It was hard not to be, particularly once I got to the theater. The line was out the door, and a full Wilma is an altogether different thing than a full compartment of Carmike 10 or Village 6. A full house at the Wilma brings a sense of importance to the movie you just don’t feel at the other theaters. Slumdog Millionaire arrives with Oscar buzz and reputation as a crowd-pleaser. I wanted some of that.
But I was also very nervous, because director Danny Boyle has let me down big-time before. Sunshine was just about the worst trapped-on-a-spaceship-with-something-scary movie I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen ’em all. The Beach is a guilty pleasure, but it’s been mostly downhill since Trainspotting. Until now, apparently.
I’ll say upfront that I really got into Slumdog Millionaire. It’s worth the ticket price just for the visual trip, a real riot on the eyes. Every last inch of it is packed with action and detail. Whatever Boyle’s directorial shortcomings, he never fails to plant the viewer right in the middle of things: heroin withdrawal, zombie attack or a chase on foot through a Mumbai slum stretching as far as the eye can see. Slumdog unquestionably deserves awards for its cinematography, which is like location shooting taken to the next dimension. The soundtrack is a perfect fit for the mad pluralism of Mumbai, with singer M.I.A.—that very embodiment of post-colonial cool—also heavily tipped to snag an Oscar for one of her original compositions.
The structure is also kind of interesting. In case you’ve been living in a medialess cave for a while, the central character of Slumdog is—yes—a poor kid from the slums who winds up on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Jamal is on the verge of winning 20 million rupees when the police arrest and torture him to find out how he cheated. In flashbacks, we come to learn the (usually grim) story behind how he knows each of the answers.
And a crowd-pleaser it certainly is, with ample opportunities to savor the gasping, murmur-y contours of a big, engaged audience. From the back of the house, I surfed a crescendo of “ewes” and groans during a particularly, um, engaging scene where a kid has to decide between leaping into an open sewer and not getting an autograph from his favorite movie star. It is no spoiler to say that there is a charming dance number in the closing credits, and people lingered appreciatively, not to say post-coitally, while the lobby audibly filled with moviegoers arriving for the second showing. Let ’em wait, we said. I split before the group hugs but, you know, I got it, I got it. The residual crowd-pleasure was practically seeping out the fire exits.
The thing is, Slumdog Millionaire is a fun movie, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much without the crowd—and a crowd that primed to see it at that. “It feels like people have been waiting to see this movie,” someone said to me in line. Well, yeah, I thought. Once a year there’s that movie that just has everybody gushing. Two years ago it was Pan’s Labyrinth—also a good movie, but it got to the point where you couldn’t go anywhere without overhearing someone talking about it. Loving Pan’s Labyrinth was supposed to vouchsafe one’s good taste in movies. In this respect, Slumdog Millionaire is this year’s Pan’s Labyrinth, a movie it will be unfashionable to do anything with but gush about.
Slumdog is not without its flaws, and some pretty big ones at that. Peel away the eye-swimming visuals, the breakneck pace, the all-around technical excellence and you’ve basically got an off-the-rack underdog story fortified with a love story that doesn’t quite cut it, shoehorned into a halfway interesting structure and blasted in your face at 100 miles an hour. The child actors do fine with the characters as kids, but as adults these same characters seem sketchy and contrived. The lead actor is dull as dirt. His love interest Latika—a woman he’s known since childhood, now a mobbed-up gangster’s wife whom he hopes to somehow rescue with all of his winnings—is gorgeous beyond belief but more a trophy than a person. With all the star-crossed twists and turns keeping the sweethearts apart, you never sense any desire, any longing, any oath-powered conviction, anything strong enough to power Jamal’s quest. Our hero goes after the girl with the same dead-eyed doggedness he brings to the game show.
But who cares about any of that? You can call Slumdog a Dickensian fable for our times, you can call it a fairy tale, but the whole thing is frankly just a little preposterous. In a good way, though. If you surrender to it, you won’t be let down.
Slumdog Millionaire is currently screening at The Wilma Theatre.