The Mis-Education of a Millionaire

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:11

    Danny Boyle proved his lack of genuine seriousness with last decade’s hipster-chic Trainspotting where he attempted to turn drug addiction into a lower-depths, rock ’n’ roll carnival. After several box-office flops (including The Beach and Sunshine) and the literally unwatchable horror movie hit 28 Days Later, Boyle is back in frenetic mode. His Slumdog Milllionaire is a stylized, excessively edited rags-to-riches goof about a little boy from the slums of Mumbai (formerly Bombay) who grows up to win 20 million rupees on the TV game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? 

    Uniquely British in its TV-influenced ostentation, Slumdog is directed with attention-deficit compulsiveness like so much product from England’s advertising mills. Jamal’s young life story, conceived as an epic, parallels India’s continuing systemic corruption. Boyle cuts back and forth between Jamal’s ragamuffin childhood, his menial adolescent struggles and his game show adulthood. The constantly interrupted narrative defines the TV program as the source of redemption and triumph. Despite first suggesting that Jamal’s fortunes are the result of a) luck, b) cheating, c) destiny, it’s all a goddamn advert for TV culture. When Jamal asks, “Why does everyone like this program?” He is told, “A chance to escape, isn’t it? Walk into another life.”

    Also uniquely British is the film’s blithe condescension about the dehumanizing conditions of the former colony. Slumdog absolves the white man’s burden with game-show flash and shrillness. Boyle’s response to poverty and degradation is to go pop: Dogme videographer Anthony Dod Mantle uses a festive range of colors that gives false vitality to the soul-deadening action. Teeming crowds, hustling con artists, smiley/treacherous child-abusers, ethnic rioters, outhouse jokes, chase scenes and gunplay are used for excitation and shock.

    There hasn’t been a social drama this decadently over-hyped since City of God. Boyle plays the same game of pandering to liberal sensibilities while entertaining safe, middle-class distance.

    Over-stimulation crushes feeling; Boyle only evokes sentimentality. His cast of child actors is overly cute—for easy sympathy and for automatic horror when they’re shown being mutilated by adults who run a beggar/prostitution underground. This parallels the game-show interval where Jamal is tortured—beaten, waterboarded, hung-up, electrocuted—by the show’s host. A little Gitmo for guilty liberals. Boyle’s patronizing pattern is revealed when survival-minded Jamal swindles white tourists. “You wanted to see a bit of the real India? You’re in it!” he says. And the bleeding hearts respond, “Well here’s a bit of the real America” giving Jamal a hundred-dollar bill—his first taste of unexamined extortion.

    That ugly exchange typifies this anti-Darjeeling Limited. Boyle trades exploitation for schmaltz. Buñuel’s slum-kids masterpiece Los Olvidados cut through such crap. Slumdog adorns it with a hip-hop and pop-song soundtrack (including MIA) that agitates Jamal’s world without explaining it—while also parading the deceitfulness of Boyle’s world. Slumdog proves British cinema has a knack for producing TV-slick frauds: Boyle, Michael Winterbottom, Adrian Lyne, Tony and Ridley Scott. Their fancy misrepresentations disgrace Britain’s narrative legacy. Slumdog reminds me that by overlooking the recent David Lean retrospective, our film culture makes itself susceptible to Boyle’s trashy spectacle and contemporary English filmmaking that betrays its moral and artistic connection to Dickens, Kipling and Forster’s understanding of social organization and individual life patterns.

    Lurid, chaotic and maudlin, Slumdog suggests a Baz Luhrmann version of Oliver Twist. Dorky Jamal (Dev Patel) survives this scheming world only by winning cash. The irony of his game-show ingenuity should portray Jamal’s abuse and indicate the tragedy of mis-education every Millionaire question triggers, including his horrific recollection of ethnic cleansing and matricide.

    But Jamal’s reward is self-centered; he’s reunited in puppy love with Latika (Frieda Pinto), while his dark-skinned childhood friend Salim (Madhur Mittal) becomes the story’s convenient villain and victim. The bloody/corny finale includes a replay of all Jamal’s literally shit-covered memories. Boyle aggressively crosscuts between the three protagonists’ fates, putting D.W. Griffith’s most radical narrative invention to disgraceful use. Boyle is a poverty pimp with an Avid.

    -- Slumdog Millionaire Directed by Danny Boyle, Running Time: 120 min. --