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Slumdog Problems

Backlash time! Slumdog Millionaire was pretty fun and I can always lounge back and watch Danny Boyle get all flamboyant with his camera, but it wouldn’t find a place among my ten best films of the year. Also I’m going to say snide things about its relationship to City of God.

Problem one: I’m too sensitive to the conditions depicted with such skill. The Mumbai slums are atrociously awful, and the poverty level we’re seeing is horrifying. Boyle’s really good at showing this. The early scene with Jamal covered in shit, running around oblivious — you laugh and you’re repulsed at your laughter, because it’s funny but guys. That kid is covered in shit and he’s going to get an infection and die or be scarred for life. This is bad.

So he gets out, which is great. The ending, everything from the shot of him returning to the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire studio onwards, it’s magic. It feels great when he gets the girl. So. Yeah. And the millions of other people who grew up watching their parents die and running around covered in shit… get to feel good because one of their own escaped!

Man, 20 million rupees is a really inexpensive way to give people hope and make them satisfied with the world around them. It’s a sophisticated lottery, and before we get all excited about the skill involved, the message of the movie is that it’s not about skill. In fact, that would be problem two.

Problem two: “it is written.”

Let’s unpack this a bit. You go to a country well known, among other things, for a rigid caste system. The idea that destiny controls you has been used for generations to control the lower classes. You make a movie that opens and ends with the bald statement: “it is written.” Jamal wins not because he’s smart, but because he’s had the right life experiences to know the answers to the questions. He’s lucky, and the ultimate answer reinforces that message.

That’s about as uplifting as a ten day old curry. Don’t try and save that sucker in the microwave; it’s done.

See previous disclaimer. I’m being overly sensitive to this, partially because I’m in a glum mood anyway. This is, in fact, classic melodrama and can be appreciated on that basis. But man, it’s not Dickensian. More like Horatio Alger.

Oh, yeah, problem three. I may have used up my entire head of steam on the first two. Let’s see.

Problem three: I’ve already seen City of God. Fernando Meirelles does not have a copyright on hyperkinetic fast cut overexposed cinematography in the slums. It’s still got to be a reference point, and when Slumdog Millionaire goes with the kid holding the gun and it’s all will he shoot? He’s too young to be a killer! Yes, I have seen that scene before. The comparisons are, thus, inevitable.

Slumdog doesn’t bring anything new to the table except the message that it can all work out in the end, and given that I feel that’s a trite message in the destiny context, that wasn’t really enough. So it goes.

So that’s the three big problems; and all that aside, it wasn’t a bad movie. I disliked the message and it suffered by comparison to one of my favorite flicks of all time. Well, Forbidden Kingdom was no Once Upon a Time in China but that doesn’t mean it sucked. Slumdog Millionaire only suffers because it’s gotten too much hype in a relatively poor year for cinema.

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