Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

"Slumdog Millionaire" is the story of Jamal Malik's ascent from, well, slumdog to millionaire. Jamal is played by a trio of actors -- at present he is Dev Patel, a young man narrating his past to prove he has not cheated on the latest episode of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"; before that he was Tanay Chheda, a lanky teenager experiencing the events that will later inform his gameshow knowledge; as a child, and with the best performance in the film, he was Ayush Khedekar, learning to survive in the slums.

The story is told chronologically out of order, and this is the movie's central flaw. The first scene tells us that Jamal is one question away from the grand prize on the gameshow. How did he get here, we are asked, and given four choices. Choice "D" suggests that this is Jamal's destiny: "It is written."

The rest of the movie plays out on this single question -- how did he get here? -- but by starting backwards at the grand prize question, any suspense in the story, or in the gameshow, is deflated. Jamal answers a question, then explains how a portion of his life gave him the answer to that question, and we watch that for nearly the entire movie. We know that he is never in peril, even when he is being tortured or falling head-first off of a moving train. We know that he will get every question right, no matter the confusion or anguish on his face. And, because of this certainty, we're pretty sure he'll get the girl and get the last question right. The theme of destiny looms large, and the movie kind of shoots itself in the foot this way. Each episode is more of a plug-and-play for the final outcome than it is an emerging or evolving story.

There's no question that co-directors Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan, and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy know what they are doing by inverting the story structure like this. A gameshow like "Millionaire" is built on the suspense of not knowing the outcome of the next question, so by telling us the end from the very beginning, the focus is meant to be shifted Jamal, the events that brought him here, and the people that he has met along the way. The theme of destiny is played structurally -- ending first -- but the characters are not strong enough to prop up a story you already basically know the ending to.

The film is a destiny-driven romance, love at first sight between Jamal and Latika (played by Freida Pinto) that prevails against all odds. The conceit is that this kind of story must have obstacles for our lovers to overcome, and characters are erected like roadblocks rather than real people. Jamal's brother is such a terrible little shit that you almost by default have sympathy for Jamal, even though Jamal himself hasn't much of a character underneath his love and crafty survival skills. Latika is beautiful, yes, but there's not much substance to love. Drug bosses, lackies, and an egomanaiacle quiz show host speckle the sidelines. These are all one dimensional characters, with little if any nuance.

If the story was told front to back, you might have some interest in the characters despite their bluntness, and the story might feel a bit more like a mosaic of Jamal's life. You might experience his destiny with him, and watch his possible triumph on a gameshow with the same beautiful enthusiasm as a crowd in the middle of a dirt field huddled around a glowing television -- easily the most touching image in the film. "Slumdog" instead tells itself backwards, and begins where it ends: with choice "D: It is written." I am left with the peculiar feeling, though, that this choice is less applicable to Jamal's fate as it is to the tricks of the screenplay.

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