14 December 2008

Review: Slumdog Millionaire

Genre: Drama

An atypical entry from Fox Searchlight, which for the past three years has thrown in films grounded so heavily in Americana - albeit offbeat Americana, but Americana all the same - in Sideways (2005), in Little Miss Sunshine (2006), and in Juno (2007); Slumdog Millionaire sets up shop in far-away India. However, unlike how one may expect for this egregious fit into the Searchlight frame, the film does not throw away all the rules or do anything else boisterously out of sync for the sake of idiosyncratic frippery than be in India; it instead clings almost rigidly to the successful formula of its studio's precedents (i. e., youth, vibrancy, delight, wonder, culture, and fantasy) and, beyond its studio, to the tracks of its ontological precedents (i. e., mystery, tragedy, love, and a quest), a historic quality that, yes, makes the film elementally constrained within insouciant-eclectic-amazing proportions, yet a quality that also makes it, when one set of precedents is mated to the other, not necessarily a boring wonder-quest to follow. While the protagonist, the hero (i. e., the downtrodden yet unswervingly enamored Jamal), passes through a series of trials to let his inner light prevail in the end, much as has done and can do any respectable hero of like ilk, directors Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan were wise enough to see that the specific details germane only to Jamal's quest were by far enough to set him apart with panache and due diligence from the rest of his like-ilked set and to let well enough alone, by choosing to embellish none other than the sights and sounds around Jamal for dazzling effect, novelty, and glory.
True then, Slumdog Millionaire is one exultant film, its story a tested one; one repeated hundereds and even thousands of times in many forms and flavors, languages and cultures; one of rags-to-riches and of rewards-for-the-good; one inspirational and devotional; one young and energetic and full of the familiar dragons and wildebeasts, familiar yet peculiar - for the film arrives in such a way that it eschews all those traditional ladens that would have otherwise burdened it down as no more than a colorful translation of a story everyone already knows, especially those native Indians out there: a way by which its elements and its forces, its principles and its morals, its dragons and its blades, describe in detail the face of not an ordinary man who obtains the stars through sheer uncompromising aspiring, but rather of a country far from ordinary as it pulses as star itself, as a nexus of its bloody past, its graphic present, and its uncertain future: In short, (the film is fully) an intelligent portrait of India. Blending in every aspect of its presentation religion, art, culture, social dynamics; growth, loss, technology, celebrity; fealty, ordinariness, ambition; lust, love; virtue, vice; humanity and all its relativism to its Western counterpart all then, now, and in the future; the film succeeds, not because of its story itself, but because of what its story invokes. Some scenes rush past, others linger; lights stipple and then blaze before going out; women dance, men butt heads; clothes are gritty, air stale; tourists are easy; punishment is hard; the struggle, the struggle - and, o, the capturing of it all on film! It is ambitious, yes, but it is well too.
So well is it, in fact, that, other than a wont for greater fire in its actors, the one and only complaint I levy against Slumdog Millionaire is the fact that it came as if content to remain as just a portrait - an ecstatic portrait, a great portrait, yes, but a portrait all the same; a skin-deep replication of something apparent and otherwise tangible in life, but forever only skin-deep and flat: incapable, in other words, of ever meaning anything. The film's final message, a sort of Ereberotic bookend on the parade, while it may say a great deal about the status of modern India in belief and in individualism v. collectivism (& theism), failed to give anything more profound to the canon than such a stark anthropological, theological, sociocultural thesis about the country. There was no bang, no application, no grand theoretical probing; the ending just was - period; and for me such rigid and unwavering determinism reeks too much of autopilot and slavery to be respectably placed. In short, I was disappointed that the filmmakers, while documenting India in this roundabout way, weren't forward enough to question it, to ask why and wherefore and implicate choice and change. I felt such questions were there, somewhere in the text, but too timidly, too cloudily voiced and absolutely not firmed up enough.
Still, however, despite these misgivings about meaning, the film remained a solid work, and let it be said, M. I. A.'s vocal adulations were a particularly enjoyable side benefit.

Grade: A-/B+, a grand spectacle indeed.

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