November 16, 2008

MOVIES: Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008)

As the movie opens, 18-year-old Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is one question away from winning the 20 million rupee grand prize on India's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? How did a kid from the slums of Mumbai get to this improable point? That's the story of Slumdog Millionaire, a collection of hopelessly hackneyed plot pieces (many of them lifted out of Dickens) tied together with ludicrous coincidences.

The host of Millionaire (Anil Kapoor) can't believe that Jamal has gotten this far without cheating, and he arranges for the cops to interrogate Jamal. The police inspector (Irfan Khan) plays back the tape of Jamal's run on the show, with each question triggering a flashback to a key moment in Jamal's life (Isn't that convenient? And in chronological order, no less!).

That life is a mess of sentimental cliche -- the dead mother, the lifelong search for a childhood sweetheart, the Fagin-esque ganglord, the treacherous older brother -- and Boyle does nothing to bring new life or energy to any of them. Oh sure, there's a lot of frantic editing and a lively score by Bollywood veteran A.R. Rahman (which would be even more effective were it turned down by about two notches throughout), and some of the acting is effective, but there's not enough here to overcome the stale story.

Worst of all is the way the movie tidily packages Third World poverty in the most aesthetically pleasing and entertaining fashion imaginable for the entertainment of First World audiences; it's poverty porn, and the kindest thing to be said about it is that it's tasteless.

Many of the Oscar pundits are talking about this as a possible Best Picture nominee, which has me worried about the upcoming glut of prestige pictures; if a movie this tired and overwrought is a contender, how awful must the rest of the field be?

MOVIES: Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, 2008)

Pure character study, which is fine as long as we're given a character worthy of study, which unfortunately, we aren't.

Our protagonist, Poppy (Sally Hawkins), is a happy young woman. Relentlessly, obsessively, oppressively happy. And that's all she is. I kept expecting that something would happen to test Poppy's cheerful disposition, and Leigh keeps teasing us with the possibility that something might, but it never does. Poppy goes to the doctor? Just minor back pain. One of her students is bullying? Just easily fixed home problems. Poppy wanders down a dark alley in the middle of the night to chat with the lunatic homeless guy who she hears muttering? Even that doesn't amount to anything.

There is a dark turn at the very end, but it's too little, too late. By then, I'd lost interest in Poppy's blithe, willful ignorance. (And the dark turn isn't really satisfying, as it forces one character into an extreme personality shift that is neither prepared nor believable.)

The movie's not entirely without merit; Gary Yershon's score is charming, in the best tradition of British light music. Eddie Marsan is funny as Poppy's polar opposite, a dyspeptic driving instructor who is particularly frustrated by her sunny outlook. And there's a fine small performance by Karina Fernandez as a flamenco teacher. The role's a bit of a cliche -- the angry Latina spitfire -- but Fernandez brings more personality and more life to the character in five minutes of screen time than Hawkins gives to Poppy in two hours. When the flamenco teacher left the room, I wanted to follow her; at least there was the possibility that something interesting might happen in her life.