Whenever a foreign film becomes the hot movie to see, it is wise to be skeptical. I wish I had been more so before deciding to go see "Slumdog Millionaire," Danny Boyle's big Indipop hit, and already the winner of a Golden Globe for Best Picture (drama).
It reminds me of that Italian movie "Life is Beautiful," which won multiple Oscars, including a best-actor statuette for Roberto Benigni. No, "Slumdog" is nothing like "Life is Beautiful" - except in the way it became an undeservedly huge hit in the United States, while many other, far better foreign films got ignored.
The joke about Benigni winning the award for best actor is that he doesn't act - he is a comedian who always plays the same fellow, like Woody Allen or Charlie Chaplin, and he does it marvelously well.
Before his international success with "L is B," Benigni was a popular star in Italy; I saw several of his films in my time there in the early '90s, in which he always acted the same way. He also was in a wonderful Jim Jarmusch film quite a few years earlier called "Down by Law" - those of you who saw it may recall that he was the same in that one, too. I saw "L is B" in Europe, long before it came to the U.S., and then had to fend off several months' worth of friends' urgings to go see it after it came here. It was not worth seeing twice, and it annoyed me that they all thought it was such a great Italian film, when lots of others are better.
So, back to "Slumdog." It is not Best Picture material. It is not even the best film out of India that I've seen this year (that would be "The Pool," which deals with some of the same themes in infinitely more subtle ways).
"Slumdog" is a fairytale with paper-thin characters. It is excessively violent. It is grossly exploitative of its subject matter (severe poverty and child abuse in Mumbai). It has as its centerpiece a lowbrow, cheaply produced television show that I would never choose to watch.
"Slumdog" is not particularly well-filmed (though the music is very good) and the actors are merely adequate, which isn't saying much considering the script. Only the youngest version of Jamal (the Slumdog) and the oldest version of his brother, Salim, merit accolades for their performances (there are three actors of different ages for each, as well as three for the girl, Latika).
What's wrong with the script, you ask? OK, here I go - Spoiler Alert! - the Slumdog wins the 20 million rupees and he gets the girl. Love wins out over everything (a love based on who knows what, unless it's just her looks) and in countless ways the audience is asked to suspend disbelief.
And for what? So we can be made to endure horrific images of child abuse, social stratification, religious war, police torture, gangsters, liars, cheaters, etc. and then be expected to feel great about this one kid whose incredible luck leads him to win a stupid game show, and then take the whore as his own.
The film concludes by posing the preposterous notion that this all happened because "it is written." Then everybody has a big ol' Bollywood dance number on a train platform (it is worth noting that the two stars don't dance well, either).
And so I say, it is crap.
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