Some random lady accosted us in the theater lobby this weekend as we were on our way in to see Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle’s new movie about a Mumbai street kid who wins big on a local game show. “You’re going to know all these answers!” she said, winking. “They’ll be easy for you!”
Well, mission not accomplished, random lobby lady. It turns out that, on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, I would have been booted on the very first question, since I don’t know a thing about 1970s Bollywood action star Amitabh Bachchan.
I’d wanted to see Slumdog Millionaire ever since I read that it uses the same structural conceit my agent had first proposed for the book that became Brainiac: a series of answers on a game show set become triggers for a set of flashbacks to the contestant’s past. (In the end, I only ended up doing this once or twice in the book.) The device pre-dates either of us, though; it’s used in E. L. Konigsburg’s Newbery-winning children’s novel The View from Saturday.
The game show content of the movie is exciting and seems fairly accurate–except, notably, for the slimy behavior of the host. I don’t want to spoil the movie’s third act, but the fictional Indian host behaves–on two occasions–in ways that, uh, don’t really reflect too well on the Millionaire brand. But the company that owns the Millionaire rights helped produce the film, so I guess if they’re happy, who am I to complain? The final question the slumdog faces seems particularly well chosen (if a little too easy to be a Millionaire final question in real life). Not only is it (of course) a callback to one of the movie’s first scenes, but it also contains a nice fake-out for most audience members. Everyone sitting around us gasped, thinking they knew exactly what was going to happen. And they were all wrong.
And the movie in general? It’s shaping up as some kind of Oscar frontrunner, which I have to say, having now seen the movie, is crazy talk. It’s good for what it is–a two-dimensional fairy tale–but that’s about it. Slumdog digs up cliches that haven’t seemed fresh since Irving Thalberg died: the rival brother who ends up falling in with no-good criminals, the crusty interrogating cop who eventually gets won over, the final reunion of the happy couple on the crowded train platform. To a degree, Boyle’s keen visual sense and the beauty of Mumbai elevate the movie above its hoary old material, but, ironically, it’s that very visual flair that distances us from the characters’ squalid milieu. The Third World poverty never seems tragic here, the way it does in, say, Salaam Bombay! or City of God. It’s too gorgeous. Not to mention too formulaic.
I’m someone who has rooted for many a shallow, middlebrow movie to win Best Picture. I liked Shakespeare in Love more than Saving Private Ryan, and had no problem with Crash winning two years ago. (Something about Heath Ledger’s odd, mannered performance in Brokeback Mountain, which I guess we’re not allowed to point out anymore.) Dose me with enough truth serum and I’ll probably admit that, deep down, I even prefer Ordinary People to Raging Bull. But Slumdog Millionaire just doesn’t have it. Wait for the Oscar backlash, mark my words. It’s coming. Final answer.