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Pop quiz:

Which popular 2008 release features this exchange?

“Come away with me.”
“And live on what?”
“Love.”

Is it:

A) Slumdog Millionaire

B) Twilight

C) Frost/Nixon

D) Waltz with Bashir

The answer?

It’s certainly cheesy enough to be from B) Twilight

I would have given anything to see Michael Sheen and Frank Langella have this exchange in C) Frost/Nixon.

And it isn’t D). Well, I haven’t seen Waltz With Bashir, but I’m fairly confident.

Lines very similar to this can be found in one of my favorite films, The New World. But in that film, the characters’ naivete is obvious. And they soon realize that there may be more important considerations than their romantic impulses. Romantic love can be beautiful and redemptive, but it can also be narrow-minded and even selfish. In The New World, such dialogue is begging to be questioned and considered.

In Slumdog Millionaire, this idealistic, honorable, adolescent exchange sums up the whole focus of the film. We’re there to cheer for the boy to get the girl, no matter how bad it gets. And he’ll get her too, just as he got that movie star’s autograph at the beginning of the movie… even if he has to dive into a mountain of human excrement (literally!) to do it.

And that’s fine, I guess. I’m all for love. I’d probably blush if someone counted how many films in my own library have lovey-dovey tendencies… The Fisher King, WALL-E, Wings of Desire, Frankie and Johnny, Roxanne, Ladyhawke….

But Slumdog Millionaire wants us to focus on that simple romantic ideal while dragging us through crises that can’t be taken as lightly as this film takes them.

So yeah, the answer is A. And, in spite of its sobering real-world context of suffering and affliction, that seems to be the sentiment that the movie wants me to take seriously.

A Few Words Before I “Give My Slumdog Testimony”

Over the last several weeks, I’ve had almost daily encounters with people urging me to see Slumdog Millionaire.

I really didn’t need the urging. It looked like an intriguing film.

But lately, the urging has reached a fever pitch. And when I say, “I’ve seen the film,” I find that folks are surprised. Why am I not raving about it on my blog? Why wasn’t it in my list of 20 favorites of 2008 at Image? Is something wrong with me?

Well, I’m sure there is something wrong with me. But I’m not sure that has anything to do with my reaction to Slumdog.

I really didn’t want to post an account of my disappointment with the film, primarily because everyone else seems to be having such fun. (I hear the line from A Room with a View: “Must you sneer? And spoil everyone’s pleasure?”) So if you don’t want me to open fire on your new best friend, you might just want to back out of this saloon before the bullets fly.

But since I’ve been asked again and again, and since I keep reading comments and notes in which folks are “diagnosing” my disappointment, I’m going to respond to some of those questions here.

And yes, this commentary is full of spoilers.

Diagnosis #1

Jeffrey just doesn’t get Danny Boyle’s style of entertainment. And he a snob when it comes to romance.

Before I describe my reservations about the film, let me make one thing clear: I do not hate this movie.

[Addendum: And, since I’m now told that this post seems to express contempt for those who love Slumdog… good grief, no! I don’t feel resentment toward its fans. Heck, most of my friends, my wife included, really liked it. And I respect that.]

I’m a Danny Boyle fan. When we met a few years back, we had a long conversation about our mutual passions — movies, the music of U2, etc.  Just a few years ago, Millions was my #1 pick of the year. I loved 28 Days Later, admired Shallow Grave, and Trainspotting still makes my head spin. I interviewed him (you can read it here) in downtown Seattle, and had a grand time. I have a feeling we’d get along famously if we met for pints on a regular basis.

I think Slumdog Millionaire is a compellingly entertaining, flashy, vividly colorful film. Flawed, but fun. I’m not at all surprised that audiences are cheering at the end, and I don’t criticize them for responding that way.

No, my complaint is with the chorus of critics heralding it “the year’s best film.”

It seems to me that they are being extraordinarily forgiving of what seem like glaring weaknesses to me from the outset. Similar to my experience watching American Beauty or Crash, I could not get excited about the film because it frustrated me at almost every turn.

Diagnosis #2

You just don’t like fast-paced, adrenalin-rush movies. You only care about meditative films anymore.

Nope, not true.

I loved Moulin Rouge, the Bourne movies, Millions, Trainspotting, Kill Bill Vol. 2, and WALL•E, for starters. I just don’t think the fast pace worked for this sprawling epic, nor did I feel an adrenalin rush. For me, Slumdog inspired confusion and frustration instead.

Diagnosis #3

You just had certain expectations going in, and the movie didn’t match what you wanted.

Guess again!

I went in as I usually do… with curiosity and eagerness to find out what the movie would be, not a preconceived notion of what it should be. Frankly, I was excited. I took time out on a very busy pre-Christmas weekend to cross town and see it.

Diagnosis #4

You just weren’t ready for it. This film takes you through so many different emotions! You wanted a film with just one main emotion.

I don’t even know what that one means.

Who wants a film with just “one main emotion”?

Diagnosis #5

Jeffrey contradicts himself. He liked Moulin Rouge. And isn’t that pretty much the same thing… a hyperactive production of  wishy-washy “We were meant to be together” sentimentality and “I Will Always Love You” cliches?

I liked Moulin Rouge, because it was a celebration of all things pop. The subject was pop, and the form suited the function. It wasn’t a serious film about French culture. I wasn’t supposed to believe in the characters; I was supposed to believe in the archetypes. Moulin Rouge knew it was a big, nutty cartoon… and thus, it captured meaning the best way pop art can. Like opera, the exaggerations were the point.

So no, I’m not a “Slumdog hater,” as one person labeled me. I’m just not excited about it.

And I’ll say a few words now about why.

STYLE

I don’t mind the rapid-cut, adrenalin-rush style of Danny Boyle’s films… usually.

But this film tries to span so much time in the characters lives so quickly that I did not get to know the characters well. The scenes are so fleeting, and the generational leaps so abrupt, that I sometimes was confused about who was who. I didn’t get a sense of personalities, interests, ambitions, or their families. Just this: “Boy A is kind and sensitive, and Boy B is older and more inclined to anger and selfishness.”

In Millions, by comparison, I found the characters so much more interesting and complex. And that movie moves very quickly too. Its young brothers were contrasted in similarly simplistic and predictable ways, but the actors and writers gave them such dimension, it worked for me. Here, I didn’t feel invested in the characters. They were just sort of… there.

Thus, I felt like I was watching a trailer for the movie it could have been. It could have been narrated by Dan Lafontaine. “In a world… where seven-year-old girls are put to work as sex slaves… one young man refuses to give up on a dream…

THE OPENING SCENE

The movie wanted me to care for Jamal, its underdeveloped central character (one critic called him a “charisma vacuum,” and I agree). But it used the oldest, cheapest trick in the book to inspire sympathy: The first time we see him, he’s having the living tar beat out of him.

You can make people care about anybody just by beating that character senseless. Beat up a child on camera, and you’ll get the whole audience rooting for them.

But inflicting violence on a character does not a character make.

I’m especially averse to movies that include gratuitous torture scenes. I see them on TV almost every night. In a quest to keep folks from changing the channel, everything gets turned up to “11.” I’ve seen so many jarring torture scenes on Alias, 24, and other TV crime dramas that I’ve lost patience with unnecessary violence on the screen. If a scene of that nature is integral to the story, and its intense moments contribute significantly to the meaning of the story, fine. But Slumdog‘s opening scene seemed designed to make me Feel! and Care!

Since I didn’t know what was going on, or who was involved, I immediately stepped back and asked, “Why do I feel like I’m the one being tortured? This had better be important to the story.” And it wasn’t.

Turns out, Slumdog‘s opening torture scene seems almost like a dream sequence in retrospect… something that doesn’t fit in with the story that comes after it, included just to grab our attention.

Which brings me to Point #2…

IMPLAUSIBILITIES

Would a young man who has just been beaten senseless, strung up by his wrists, and electrocuted, walk handsomely, adorably, and smilingly back out onto a game show stage right afterward without showing any sign of discomfort, abuse, or bruising?

Are we just supposed to forget that the torture ever happened? Does his body have some superhuman recuperative powers?

The scene seems, in retrospect, to be a cheap trick for getting our attention, but not one that fits reasonably into the flow of the story.

All through the film, I was being asked to believe the most impossible things. If the film were clearly a fantasy, that would be fine. But it keeps insisting on real-world relevance in ways that I can’t set aside in order to ride with the whimsical current.

SOUND AND FURY SIGNIFYING… WHAT EXACTLY?

Some have argued that it’s a fairy tale, and that I shouldn’t take things so seriously. Fine. It’s a fairy tale. Then why spend so much time and attention on making me reckon with meticulous real-world details, and striving so hard to stun me with the realization of How Hard Life Really Is In India?

I agree with critic Michael Sicinski:

We get young kids playing on the megalopolis trash heaps, violent outbreaks of the Hindu / Muslim conflict, Oliver Twist-style orphan exploitation, the loss of his brother to mobsters, eventual low-level employment at a call center, and, once Jamal starts succeeding on the game show, torture under interrogation by shady police. The question is, are these moments to be taken seriously, as social critique, or are they just “the bad stuff” that our hero must undergo in order to satisfy his quest to reunite with his beloved? The tagline, “It is written” gives a clue, but these grim interludes take up so much of the screen time it’s difficult to just write them off as mere plot hurdles. Boyle does seem to have an investment in showing us hard times in “the real India,” but the fairy tale demands of Slumdog mean that these hardships are so overblown …  as to ask a Western viewer to recoil, getting our “exceptionalist” hackles up. (“Well, tonight thank God it’s them, instead of you….”)

Slumdog, in its brightest moments and its darkest, never departs from a touristic and yes, a colonialist gaze, even as it tries to be frivolous, frothy uplift.

PLOT

Almost every scene was so riddled with storytelling shortcuts and cliches that I found myself predicting what would happen scene to scene.

Hmmm. The kids are surrounded by threatening adults. My guess… one of them will throw something hot or destructive into a bad guy’s face, and then shout ‘Run!’ And then they’ll run.

Somehow, even though the adults are bigger, smarter, and stronger, the kids will outrun them through a dense jungle.

And what do you want to bet there’ll be a Convenient Escape Train that always shows up? One with an open boxcar.

Lo and behold… there’s the train! I see three characters running to catch the train. What do you want to bet, since there’s a lot of story left to tell, that one of them will lose their grip on the other characters’ hand and fall behind?

Etc. Etc. Etc.

I never felt any suspense because the film never took the time to build any. And almost every situation seemed to be resolved very quickly by the most obvious, over-used, (and yet implausible) solution.

Wait, the game show. That was suspenseful, right?

Well, most people find game shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? suspenseful. I’ve always been turned off by the show, and shows like it, because I don’t like to see money celebrated as such a prize, or to see it equated with happiness and success. Thus, the shower of money at the end of the movie doesn’t contribute to any sense of excitement for me.

And “Victory By Lucky Guess” falls far short of my idea of a thrilling conclusion. Lucky guesses fail to give me any mystical sense of Providence at work, and the film clearly wants me to have that sense.

And speaking of Providence, I didn’t understand what this movie was saying about it. If you want something bad enough, your destiny will be fulfilled? Wow, I hope that’s not how Providence works.

CHARACTERS

What characters?

This year, I became better acquainted with the character, personality, heart, mind, interests, and capabilities of a certain robot in the first ten minutes of his movie than I do about the central character of Slumdog Millionaire after two hours.

I don’t think I’m imposing unfair expectations upon this film. I wanted to know more about Jamal and his brother. I need to believe in them and their story if I’m going to care. I love magical realism. I read a lot of it, I write a lot of it. As Salman Rushdie said, even in a fairy tale there needs to be some semblance of a believable situation. I believed in Millions, I believed in Trainspotting, I even believed in those poor, desperate survivors in 28 Days Later. I didn’t believe this story.

And I wanted to see the actors act. But they never had much of a chance, when their scenes were all filmed in fast-forward.

These were stock characters. Sure, you can tell me “That’s the way Bollywood movies work, and this was a tribute to Bollywood.” I’d answer, I don’t enjoy or claim to understand Bollywood movies. I’m sure that’s my loss. Are you a big Bollywood fan? Maybe you can explain it to me.

Secondly, if the film is going to go for Harsh Realism in the way it portrays its environments, that only accentuates how flat and undeveloped these “characters” really are.

CLICHES AND TRIVIALITY

It didn’t work for me in The Last of the Mohicans, or Titanic, or Slumdog Millionaire. In all three films, the “You and I were meant to be” thread — the central thread of the plot —  was the least interesting part of the whole film.

To take a fascinating historical context, in which atrocities or disasters or devastation are happening everywhere you look, and then ask me to be primarily concerned about two lovers being separated… it doesn’t work for me. “I will find you! No matter how long it takes! I will find you!” That scene in Mohicans doesn’t endear me to Daniel Day-Loincloth or Madeline Swoon, just as the endless choruses of “Jack!” “Rose!” “Jaaaaack!” “Rooooose!” in Titanic grated on my nerves.

Conventions like this are the backbone of Harlequin romances and dime-store adventure stories. They can be done well. Heck, some of my favorite films bring together lovers in a sense of “destiny” or Providence… The Princess Bride, for example. Even Blade Runner has it. (“Would you come after me?”)

But in order for this to earn “best movie of the year” kudos, it should be something extraordinary, I need to find the characters and their story fascinating and compelling. This story never made me believe in these characters, and moved too fast for me to have a chance to think or feel anything at all.

If you told this same story in the context of the Holocaust, I suspect there would be cries of outrage at how that chapter of history was being exploited to serve as the “obstacle” in the path of a young boy chasing his dream girl. It would take a very skillful storyteller to tell that story with any sense of propriety. But here, it feels exploitative. To me, anyway.

(This is the kind of film where the disfiguring scar that the abused heroine receives in her captivity is the kind of scar that, when the scabs fall of, looks wicked cool on her cheek!)

THE “DO YOU THINK I’M STUPID?” FACTOR

I do not need to be reminded, over and over and over again, with vivid flashbacks, that Jamal has been separated from his true love. Nor do I need to be reminded that traumatic incidents will remind him of the tragic separation from his mother.

The flashback-as-memory device in film almost always gives me the impression that the filmmaker doesn’t trust his own storytelling, and that he feels he’d better remind us why this moment is important.

Let me think for myself, please.

Let me have my own emotional responses, instead of constantly hitting me over the head with “And this is really hard for him, remember, because….”

THE FEEL-GOOD ENDING

I couldn’t feel good about the ending, and I can’t believe the movie wanted me to, considering all of the heartbreaks we’d passed through as if we were on an amusement-park rollercoaster ride. I didn’t want to dance. I wanted to collapse in exhaustion and start praying for the massive mess that is modern India.

This plunged me into the abyss of real-world horrors and wanted me to celebrate the one lovestruck guy got his girl through a lifelong act of sheer determination.

What about the boy who’d been blinded (for starters)? While the audience was cheering that Jamal had found his girl, I kept thinking, what about that kid? Why didn’t Jamal show more concern for him? Was he really such a disposable supporting character, just a cog in the wheel of a machine designed to produce a magical kiss?

I like amusement park rides, but I’d rather they not include a dizzying dive into Calcutta’s Red-Light District. Some smart businessman might go to Disney and suggest a Slumdog Millionaire Rollercoaster. Why not? It’s not a far cry from this film. People will love it.

“IT IS WRITTEN.” (BUT IS IT MEANINGFUL?)

What does the film want us to understand about Providence? That God will get you through all kinds of troubles and then reward your dream by making it come true? You’re not getting the girl? Keep trying. It is written. You’re poor and persecuted? Don’t give up on your dream. It is written that you shall have it.

This is not the kind of Providence I believe in. This isn’t my idea of the kind of love that’s going to save the world and give the people hope. And “It is written”, or “Destiny,” or whatever label you slap on it doesn’t move me. It felt about as profound as the lesson of another fairy tale now playing — The Tale of Despereaux on Steroids — in which the filmmakers buried DiCamillo’s simple, beautiful story in all kinds of unnecessary hubbub… and then the narrator wrapped things up by confusing grace with “Good Luck.”

Is this film saying that Jamal’s Muslim faith is the secret to his success? Then why didn’t the film take Muslim faith seriously, and show us something of what Muslim faith entails?

And while the film takes stabs at the hollowness of capitalism and greed, this film’s eagerness to please the audience with every single shot, song, line, and moment felt too much like a product of that very machine.

OKAY. I’M DONE.

Okay… having said all that. Yeah, Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle cooked up some really, really cool shots. And the end-credit dance was fun (although I got a bigger kick out of the one during the closing credits in Down With Love.)

I’m not saying that those of you who love Slumdog Millionaire didn’t encounter something real. Stories of characters who overcome the odds in pursuit of their dream are essential stories that give us hope.

I’m just saying… this version of that story didn’t work for me. I kept saying to myself, “I really think I’m supposed to want to dance at the end. And I really, really, really don’t.” What would I be celebrating, anyway? One of the most spectacularly contrived conclusions I’ve ever seen, fulfilling the dreams of characters I don’t believe in.

If you’re going to comment here in favor of the film, please describe in detail what it meant to you and why.

But really, I’m tired of being “diagnosed” for not becoming a Slumdog cheerleader. And if my response seems overblown and snarky, forgive me… I’m just tired of reading condescending rationalizations of why I didn’t love this movie.

It reminds me of the letter that I once received from a Christian couple, a husband and wife, who co-wrote a message to me telling me that “Since you can’t see the beautiful story of Christian love at the heart of Titanic, and understand why it’s one of most beautiful movies ever made, then we feel sorry for you, because you clearly won’t know how to find or appreciate true Christian love in your lifetime.”

I asked my wife to compose the reply to that one.

And before I go, my thanks to Michael Sicinski (scroll to the end) and Salman Rushdie for keeping me company in this dark, cold, lonely corner.

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