The question Jamal can’t answer: Why do its critics hate Slumdog Millionaire so much?
We have decided to postpone our Best of 08 movies post a bit longer, possibly until sometime shortly before the Oscars (February 22). When we do finally write that post, it will likely be in the spirit of Matthew Leathers’s Best Of post, aptly titled “Movies Released in 2008 That I Enjoyed at a Somewhat Above Average Level.” 2008 offered no Royal Tenenbaums, no Children of Men, no Brokeback Mountain or The English Patient or National Treasure or There Will Be Blood. (One of those was a joke.) We walked out of no theater this year thinking, “We just witnessed a great movie.” But we left thinking there were plenty of good ones. And the best was Slumdog Millionaire.
Now, if you’ve already read Mr. Leathers’s post, you’ll know that he possesses an all-consuming hatred of Slumdog. “It played like Mumbai 90210,” he writes, adding “I’d pair it up with Crash as the most overrated Best Picture winner if it goes that far.” ( “Okay, okay, it’s starting to sound like I hated this movie,” Matthew says. “I didn’t, I swear.” But then he adds, “The sole mission of my remaining days on Earth will be to disembowel Danny Boyle.”*)
We could not agree more with him on Crash. (Ben has not hated a movie so much since Magnolia.) And we generally loathe those good-to-mediocre movies that garner surprise Best Picture nominations and harness word-of-mouth support and underdog status to take them straight to the top. Crash is a perfect example. So is A Beautiful Mind. (So too would have been nominees like The Cider House Rules, Chocolat and, although we liked it, Juno.) Many people lump Shakespeare in Love with this group, as if it were a tiresome gnat flitting about the face of the water buffalo Steven Spielberg World War II epic Saving Private Ryan. But how many times have you watched Saving Private Ryan? Do you pop that one in for fun on a Saturday night?** It’s an impressive film meant to be commemorated more than watched. For once, the Academy made the right choice on that one.
We’re afraid Slumdog is being painted with the same brush, especially after winning so many Golden Globes. Matthew links to a blistering review which is not without certain merits. (How did Jamal get picked to appear on the Hindi version of “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire”?) The most damning charge its critics level against Slumdog is that it’s sentimental and tends, amid certain brutality, toward simplistic, feel-good fantasy, culminating with the ecstatic dance party during the end credits. We loved that sequence. It’s a little silly, certainly far-fetched. But it worked. It’s a reminder that what you just watched was, after all, only a movie, unabashedly romantic and manic in its desire to entertain. Anyone who didn’t expect Jamal and Latika to reunite during the climactic finish was not paying very close attention during the first 90 minutes. This wasn’t going to end like American Beauty. (Or, say, Closer.)
The movie is a bizarre mash of styles, but that’s part of its charm. Telling the story of a boy’s unlikely rise from the slums through the framework of a glitzy quiz show? We thought of two analogues, one trivial and one a bit more substantial. The trivial is Cliff Clavin’s immortal appearance on “Jeopardy!” For anyone who hasn’t seen it, Cliff — a mailman — crushes a neurosurgeon and lawyer on the popular quiz show because all of the categories (Civil Servants, Stamps From Around the World, Beer, Bar Trivia, Celibacy) match exactly Cliff’s limited expertise. (Unlike Slumdog, Cliff loses in Final Jeopardy because he bets all $22,000 on a category he knows nothing about.)
The other parallel is with Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children, which last year won the Booker of Bookers. Midnight’s Children uses a fantastical premise — that all 1001 babies born in the first hour of India’s independence possess special powers, from time travel to gender bending — to tell the story of India’s history through one of those babies, Saleem Sinai, switched at birth and relegated to an upbringing of squalor. Saleem’s special power is telepathy, accomplished through a prodigious schnozz (he is referred to throughout the novel as “the nose”) which grants him the ability to “sniff out” and communicate with each of the other children. Midnight’s Children has echoes of Bollywood in it, but it transcends those to say something profound about India. The parallels to Slumdog are numerous, from the affectionate descriptions of Bombay (now Mumbai) to the Westernization of India (the Hindi “Millionaire”). Likewise, Saleem’s rivalry with the baby he was switched with at birth and their alternate fates resembles Jamal and his brother Salim’s criss-crossing, ultimately divergent paths. Both sets of characters are inextricably linked, dependent but at odds with one another.
What do Slumdog and Midnight’s Children ultimately have in common? They are both fairy tales. They intermingle history and fantasy through personal narrative. Their outcomes vary (Slumdog is certainly more optimistic), but there is something fanciful in each that is, if you give in to it, winning. (We’re not going to bring Cliff’s “Jeopardy!” appearance back in at this point and argue that “Cheers” dabbled in magical realism, so let’s just drop all comparisons there and move on to the final paragraph.)
We’ll leave the question of whether or not Slumdog deserves “Best Picture” to the Academy Voters, unreliable as they may be. But we hope Slumdog’s detractors will criticize it for what it is, not what it is not. When Jamal phones a friend and Latika, watching the show by the side of the road because of a traffic jam, realizes he is calling her, we didn’t wonder whether she will race back to her car in time to answer the phone. (Everyone knows she will.) By that point we had turned off the part of our brain which regards the moment with ironic detachment. We were simply riveted by what would happen next.
* = We made that last comment up. Forgive us, Matthew! We now welcome you to bring it in the comments.
** = The question of whether a Best Picture should be loved or respected is best saved for another post. There are plenty of Best Pictures — Schindler’s List comes to mind — we would not want to curl up with on a Saturday night, but we can freely admit they deserved to be Best Picture.