When Slumdog Millionaire was announced the winner of the Golden Globes for Best Picture, it was lavished with glowing Oscar predictions. But acclaimed novelist Salman Rushdie told the New York Times that he wasn’t a fan of the film, saying the storyline felt implausible, “And I’m the only person who thinks this,” he added.
Slumdog Millionaire has the makings of a great fable. There are orphaned main characters, a Fagan and some financial scheming that all smack of Dickens. There are hints at mysticism. There’s sibling rivalry. Desperate escapes and kidnapping. Rags to riches. A dark and dangerous city underworld. Destined (and distanced) true love.
That’s all definitely intriguing on paper. However, Slumdog Millionaire doesn’t fully deliver on any of this. There is an uninteresting character set up against the protagonist’s brother; similarly, it seems like a contrast is at work between the game show host and the protagonist but this contrast is never explored. The transitions between a few events feel jumpy. For all the potential of good storytelling, the characters are largely abused for the sake of moving the movie along.
The film is also terribly inconsistent. It wants to take itself seriously but almost tries too hard. An early torture scene seems to set the tone for a violent thriller. But this has nothing to do with the rest of the film. The 1993 Bombay Riots set the stage for some important plot events, but the riots are an impulsive setting taken out of their historical context. A divine visitation that could contribute some magic realism isn’t anything but plot device. There’s note made of a human being’s materialistic value that sets up a working morality in the film but is contradicted when a character disregards such structure. The ending falls so comfortably into place that it feels contrived.
Most frustrating is the love story itself. The protagonist meets and loves the girl early on, but the audience must assume that he loves her just for the sake of it. This would be fine, except that there’s no other reason to care about the couple.
Calling Slumdog Millionaire a tribute to Bollywood seems as misleading as calling Brokeback Mountain a movie about gay cowboys. Bollywood films involved destined romance and melodrama, but they also invoked song and dance numbers to further the plot. The only trace of that here is an arbitrary dance number over the credits.
Throughout Slumdog Millionaire, rules get set up only to be broken later. The world isn’t tightly wrought; the film never seems to know whether it’s a fairy tale, a crime drama, a coming-of-age story, or a love story, and it feels too loose in all the wrong places to reliably be all of that at once.
Too fabulous to be serious and too insistent to be inconsistent, Slumdog Millionaire looks and sounds beautiful, but it lacks any true substance beneath its colorful and self-conscious surface that could merit an Oscar for Best Picture.