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The UnPopular Opinion: Slumdog Millionaire

08.08.2012

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THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!

**** SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE came out of relative nowhere in 2008 and went on to win all sorts of Oscars, including Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture. The Oscar winning soundtrack became a hit in college dance classes everywhere (my own included), the film was deemed “the feel-good film of the decade," and I was swept up along with everybody else in its vibrant anthem of luck, love, and survival.

But then I re-watched it, as I'm willing to do with most any film I even halfway enjoy, and I was extremely surprised to discover that it in no way held up after that explosive, sensory-flooding first viewing. Certain elements about the crafting of it still impressed me and certain moments in the story still affected me, but on the whole I found little about SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE to justify its sweep of the Oscars in 2009 or the adoration it still receives to this day.

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"When somebody asks me a question, I tell them the answer."

I can enjoy a "feel good movie” that wraps up in a violently sweet saccharine bow – take as clear examples of this point my unabashed love of LOVE ACTUALLY and the piece that I wrote for this very column in full support of THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON.  So rest assured, this entry isn’t going to be some rage fest against movies that culminate in a firework display of true love triumphing over anything and everything life can throw in its way.  Unless that's what you were hoping for, in which case I'm afraid you're out of luck.  I appreciate such movies, I’ve firmly defended them to many a detractor, and never will you hear me deny the theoretical validity of such an ending. The practical validity of such an ending, however, is another question entirely.

For a movie to wrap up in such a fashion, and for me to not only accept it but like it, the journey up until that point needs to justify the chosen ending.  I find it jarring and disconnective to have a film's tone, atmosphere, and intention jump all over the place, with SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE being by turns a fairy tale, dark drama, inspirational rags-to-riches story, love story, colorful exploration of another culture, and much more besides.  This is not to say that any of these elements needs be mutually exclusive, as indeed they are often made better by their careful juxtaposition.  But with SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE no effort seems to be made to actually weave each of this disparate elements together into a cohesive whole.  Not to mention the one constant element of this film that underlines every other element, namely that of it being a Western pity fest of epic proportions.

I think it would be fair to say that the majority of problems I have with the film's pacing and tonal inconsistency lie in the laps of screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and director Danny Boyle.  SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is built with a very particular structure, one centered around the mystery of how the main character correctly knew the answer to all of the questions he has been asked on the show "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire."  But this greater mystery that is constantly afoot during all of the explanatory flashback sequences and the frenetic cuts back and forth between time/place is stretched far too thin to remain gripping, and so the film's momentum stops and starts in a very inorganic and altogether frustrating way.  What could have been an engaging question loses its potency due to the (often extensive) side routes taken to provide a small part of the greater answer we are seeking, an answer which then ends up being a mushy mess of "fate," "luck," and "it is written (destiny)."  I.e. the most unsatisfying end possible for this film to have settled on.  Again, not because of it being a fairy tale ending inherently, but because it's so out of synch with the suffer-fest that came before.

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"A few hours ago, you were giving chai for the phone walahs. And now you're richer than they will ever be. What a player!"

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE isn't an Indian film; it is rather a Western vision of India as imagined by comfortable Western sensibility, a colorful trek through tribulations and poverty in the name of two people floating up up and way in a cloud of confetti and love.  This film brings nothing new to storytelling, nothing new to India, nothing new to the way we as the West view a culture so drastically different from our own, nothing new to the question of how to survive seemingly relentless suffering, and nothing new to the Disney-perfected formula of affective plot crafting.  

At one point in the film, the police are chasing a young Jamal and push him to the ground, which also happens to be right at the feet of an American couple visiting the Taj Mahal.  Jamal looks up at them, one hand clutched to his swelling eye, and says "You wanted to see a bit of the real India? Here it is!" The woman looks down, her eyes overflowing with concern, gestures to her husband for some money, and hands over a $100 bill while saying "Well here's some of the real America, son." This magically makes everything better, as the police leave Jamal alone and that $100 eventually becomes another stepping stone on his journey to finding Latika.  Which is too bad - I just wanted some of more the real India, something the least bit inventive or illuminatory (as I believe all stories should aim to be) about the very real circumstances and questions the film continues to tease,.  As it is, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE isn't much more than a veneer of hope and possibility, a $100 bill of a film - crisp and pretty and expensive, but little else.

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"I thought we would meet only in death."
"This is our destiny."

Oh, and if you have any suggestions for The UnPopular Opinion I’m always happy to hear them. You can send along an email to ajstepenberg@joblo.com, spell it out below, slap it up on my wall in Movie Fan Central, or send me a private message via Movie Fan Central. Provide me with as many movie suggestions as you like, with any reasoning you'd care to share, and if I agree then you may one day see it featured in this very column!

Extra Tidbit: I haven't even touched on the completely dumb death of Jamal's brother Salim. In character decision-making and storytelling execution it falls flat, capping off the character arc of several characters in a bitterly disappointing way.
Source: JoBlo.com

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