One of the first big dilemmas I encountered as a full-time, professional film critic was what the hell I should do about Shrek. My friend and I, both diehard Pixar fans, sat through the entire film in stony silence, wincing at the cheap-seat fart jokes and moldy pop-culture japes. Yet all around us were people—most of them just folks, not journalists—nearly falling out of their seats with raucous laughter. I hated the movie, and couldn’t in good conscience report otherwise ... but did I also owe it to readers to stress that my reaction was far from the norm? Or would that just be patronizing? Unsure, I hedged—and now I find that I must hedge again. For Slumdog Millionaire arrives in local theaters riding a veritable tsunami of audience goodwill, to say nothing of its status as the current frontrunner for Best Picture at next year’s Oscars. People genuinely seem to love it. All I can do, really, is try my best to explain why I did not.
Admittedly, the film looks at a glance like the kind of thing a critic would be thrilled to see mainstream America embracing. Though written and directed by Brits—Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) and Danny Boyle (Trainspotting), respectively—and set in Mumbai, Slumdog doesn’t reduce its Indian characters to passive but colorful way stations along the path of some white dude’s emotional journey. Our plucky protagonist is Jamal (Dev Patel), whose hardscrabble life, as the film begins, has just taken an unexpectedly upbeat turn: He’s in a position to win the top prize on the Indian edition of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Trouble is, nobody, least of all a hardass police inspector (Irfan Khan), believes that Jamal could possibly have known the answers to all those questions. So ensues a series of flashbacks, in which we see that every bit of trivia the game show threw at Jamal corresponds to some horrible event he once survived.
And those events are pretty damn horrible. The young Jamal (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) narrowly escapes being blinded by a Fagin-like scoundrel who’s found that disabled children collect more coins from tourists; other little boys aren’t so lucky. Jamal’s true love, Latika (played in her oldest incarnation by Freida Pinto), winds up more or less sold into sexual slavery. Grinding poverty, religious intolerance, brutal torture—yes, you get every one of Social Injustice’s Greatest Hits in one spectacular collection. (Call now! Indian wage slaves are standing by!) And yet it’s hard to take any of these nightmares seriously, since ultimately they’re just obstacles for our hero to overcome en route to financial gain and romantic bliss. Slumdog Millionaire may, as some have argued, be just an unusually gritty fairy tale, but indulging in fantasy doesn’t exempt a movie from charges of cheap exploitation.
Still, I freely confess that I’d be much less concerned with Slumdog’s dubious politics had I been seduced by its flashy surface. Alas, I seem to be immune to whatever magic others are finding here. With the notable exception of the game show’s hilariously unctuous host (Anil Kapoor), the characters struck me as bland and unmemorable; Patel, in particular, makes for a singularly tiresome protagonist, his callow earnestness radiating off of him in sickly waves. The film’s tough-question-inspires-gruesome-flashback structure quickly became numbingly repetitive. And I’m sorry, but parts of this movie are stupid to the point of being insulting: No nation’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? would allow a contestant to hit the restroom between hearing the question and answering it. I just can’t roll with that degree of idiocy in a film with any pretense, however shallow, of depicting real-world misery. Maybe that’s just me.