Friday, January 16, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire: The Little Cliché That Could

Danny Boyle went home a very, very happy Brit at the Golden Globes. His latest film, the absolute media darling "Slumdog Millionaire" won every single one of it's nominations: Best Original Score, Best Screenplay, Best Director, and the pièce de résistance Best Motion Picture (Drama). That's a lot of awards, and a lot of really respected awards at that. And I couldn't be less pleased.

I knew when I saw the trailer that this was going to be the 'feel good movie' of the year. I even said so. When I saw the film with my fellow Cousins Jonas my hypothesis was proved correct: "Slumdog" was a cute, pleasant movie that touched on a number of generic, leave-you-feeling-warm-at-the-very-end notes. I couldn't see what everyone found so remarkable about it. I tried to convey the triteness of it all, but my words fell on deaf, ignorant ears. So, let me analyze bit by bit every tried-and-true, boring method I saw in the film.

The very beginning I liked. Dev Patel getting the hell tortured out of him. It sparked my interest. And then, a high tension chase through the slums. This really had me fooled. But then the story started evolving, and my expectations were arrived. Jamal's brother Salim was like plenty of other characters I've met in the past. He's hotheaded. He's unwilling to trust Jamal's love-interest Latika... at first. He's loyal to his brother, but too tied up in his own life. He also thinks it's no sweat to reconcile with Jamal ten years after leaving him to fend for himself, completely alone in the world. What a reasonable guy.

That's just one of the characters. Let me take a broader look at the film. There are a few events that really got me going. Jamal and Salim are taken in by a band of thugs, who send children out to beg for money. Is it just me, or does every orphan hang out with criminals for at least a little while? I got a very Oliver Twist-vibe out of this.

I was willing to let that go when I was watching, but then, the scene that was the beginning of the end for me: Jamal, working for a telemarketing company, tracks down his brother, years after having seen or spoken with him, and is immediately recognized. "Jamal?" his brother asks, cheerfully ready to go back to the days when they were seven, running around, scrimping and scrapping to make do. From what we've seen, Salim should either be begging on his knees for forgiveness, or unwilling to speak to his long discarded brother.

The love story in this also follows the path it feels like I've witnessed hundreds of times. Jamal doesn't see Latika for years and years, but he harbors a crush on her the whole while, presumably having fallen in love with her as an adolescent, and ignoring any other potential suitress through his life, and then, upon meeting her again, he acts like her running away with him, getting married and starting a new life, would make perfect sense to her. They haven't seen each other. For... forever. But oh, how his love burns strongly. Of course, Latika is married to your conventional semi-abusive, fat husband, who also happens to be a crime lord. So, it's a no go.

Until she runs away with Jamal, and they live happily ever after. Like in any other fairy tale romance.

I didn't hate "Slumdog". I thought it was a good movie. I still think Danny Boyle is a great director. It's... it's just... there were so many movies that defied these conventions this year. There were so many better written, originally plotted and charactered films. What comes to mind, especially now that I know "Slumdog" is probably set up for more praise at the Oscars, are "Synecdoche, New York" and "Let the Right One In", neither of which are being given any notice at the Oscars, much higher in esteem than the Golden Globes are.

"Synecdoche" was the most original, and funny, and well-acted film I saw this past year, and was definitely my favorite of 2008. "Right One" is an original, heart-wrenching take on vampire myths, and has a number of breath-taking shots, while "Slumdog" is any old romance with an Indian twist, and was shot competently, but not spectacularly.

I think people are willing to allow some originality into their life, but not any great amount of it. They see "Slumdog", take away the interesting cultural references and sweet moments, and think they've seen something incredible, because it doesn't look like something they've seen before. But it is. Danny Boyle says he set out to make a modern day love fantasy, and he did, not that it was at all different in message than every pre-modern love fantasy.

What I want from critics, and voters, is not a willingness to appreciate what they've appreciated once before, but to take a chance on liking something original.

- Eric T. Voigt, Worn Out Over This

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