Thursday, November 13, 2008

Is That Your Final Answer? Danny Boyle's SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE

While it shouldn’t be this way, “feel good” (or FG) movies have become suspect. Movies that are supposed to make you feel good about life and the world around us have become so tiresome, so routine, so fucking mediocre, that you want to run away from them as far as you can. Pictures about long shots with gumption who go all the way are among the worst pictures I’ve ever seen, and I’ve come to avoid them over the last decade or so. Of course, when these pictures are good, like ROCKY or even ROCKY BALBOA, then they’re great and well worth seeing and worth praising, too. But for every ROCKY there’s a KARATE KID PART III that just goes through the motions and are so uninspired that it kills the whole genre. In order for a FG picture to work, it has to earn those good vibes, and way too many of them don’t seem to bother or don’t understand how to properly present the struggle. It’s not just that someone has to go through hard times in order for their triumph to work, it’s that the triumph has to be believable, something that the audience must relate to in some way. This is where Danny Boyle’s SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE succeeds where many others fail - you understand the struggle. It’s not just that the lead character goes through a very tough life to get to where he is, or even that he’s a quite likable fellow, it’s that his story is one that you can see happening to people the world over, and it truly makes you feel good to see it resolved in the way it does.

What’s interesting about SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is how Simon Beaufoy’s script (adapted from Vikas Swarup’s book, Q & A) hits so many of the standard feel good clichés (dead parents; tough childhood; lost long love; organized crime), but it doesn’t condescend. What the lead character goes through is fascinating to watch because it hits its emotional marks extremely well, and one feels that what they’re watching is a fairly true representation of life in India. I also admire how it’s not afraid to get into the dirt and grime of it (though I could have done without some scatological humor - not a fan of that stuff), presenting some things that most U.S. audience members wouldn’t be able to stomach unless they saw it in a FG movie. The balance of tough life to good life is not an easy to maintain, so it’s going to take skill and talent to do it right and SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE does. It also helps to have someone like Danny Boyle directing, since he’s been able to balance dirt and grime with style throughout most of his career, and with SLUMDOG the balance works so well that this proves to be one of his finest to date. There’s no cheap sentimentality on display here; Boyle is very much interested in the tough times as he is the ultimate triumph, which very clearly shines through. He may have been the ideal director for this material (and let’s also give credit to his co-director, Loveleen Tandan, for her contributions), and what you see here feels very much lived-in, not merely in the Indian surroundings, but also in what the characters are going through; it seems honest, which is the only way this could have worked. While there certainly are parts of SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE that play into fantasy, there’s zero Hollywood sheen felt, and that’s what makes the difference.

There’s a lot else to like here, too. I love that Boyle doesn’t commit his subtitles to the center of the screen, but rather places them where it emphasizes what the characters are feeling, and that’s damn effective. The picture also looks excellent (shot on a mix of both HD and 35mm) and the Mumbai locations are often quite striking, and you feel like you’re getting a true taste of what the city and country are like. The film is also extremely well cast, with a tremendously appealing Dev Patel and the lovely Freida Pinto in the leads, and a terrific Anil Kapoor as the host of the game show where the center of the film’s action takes place. So sure, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is a total FG movie, but it actually does make you feel good when it’s over and that’s rare that an FG movie can actually pull that off these days. It’s certainly a crowd pleaser, but it’s one that even curmudgeons can get caught up in, which is the greatest compliment one can give it. Definitely worth your time.

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