The opening moments of Slumdog Millionaire
confirm Danny Boyle is behind the camera: a totally artificial golden light bathing god knows what for a peaceful moment, and then the sudden eruption of violence, both on a character and on the audience. Boyle uses shock-cuts (sudden bangs and visual disruptions) more often than the cheapest of horror films. He doesn't want to scare you: he just wants to keep you tense and keyed-up, always ready for the next "kinetic" moment, or whatever he thinks passes for kinetic.
Which is to say that Danny Boyle's a hack, but a very special kind. He can never transcend his screenplays, which is too bad because he seems to have no discrimination in picking them out. Slumdog Millionaire is a step up from Sunshine, which contained my personal nominee for worst line of the decade ("Fuck you, Kappa. What are you trying to do, remind us of our last humanity?"); instead of being egregiously incompetent in the script department it's merely flat and conventional, using its Indian setting to deploy a kind of boring Bollywood minus the songs (a delightful end-credits surprise notwithstanding). But Bollywood uses style and fun to make its melodrama palatable and buoyant; Boyle seems to think he should take his story seriously, or at least with a straight face.
Jamal (Dev Patel) is a slum kid with no prospects; getting an autograph from Amitabh Bachchan is the presumable highlight of his young life — although, as the framing device shows, he's just won the Indian "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire." Jamal's path there is little more than an excuse for a quick tour of Indian historical iconography: Bollywood! Anti-Muslim riots! Juhu beach! Boyle might as well have attempted a free-form adaptation of Suketu Mehta's excellent Maximum City. (It should be noted that the reductiveness goes both ways: in one of the funniest, thrown-away gags, a character announces that he has a perfect understanding of Scotland: it consists of Sean Connery, whiskey, kilts and haggis. ) It doesn't really bother me that Boyle's India is so slimmed-down because, in many ways, it's the most ambitious narrative attempt by an outsider.
But it's endlessly banal regardless. There is, for example, the slight problem of the love of Jamal's life, Latika (Freida Pinto) and their endless attempts to get together. Frankly, Peter Parker moved faster. But no one moves as fast as Boyle, whose constant stylistic overdrive is his one constant: his screenplays may be eclectic in background, but the style remains the same. Even on 28 Days Later, the sheer ugliness of his necessity-imposed video lensing didn't stop the cuts from coming fast and furious. Frankly, I'm not sure why Boyle isn't mentioned in the same breath as, say, Michael Bay, or why he's taken more seriously, except for the fact that his material takes itself very seriously indeed. Never mind that Slumdog, while aiming for some kind of realism, is actually shockingly inattentive to class realities in India (in the space of a cut that elides time, Jamal suddenly has a perfect command of English with which to hustle Taj Mahal tourists; how the hell did he afford to learn it?). The real problem is that Boyle is a guy for whom the words "graphic match" have a practically sacred meaning; he's a formalist with no real interest in matching what he wants to do to what he's filming. Slumdog is instantly recognizable, but rarely compelling: it cuts frantically from smaller shot to bigger pull-back, from one musical cue to another ("Paper Planes" shows up twice — the DFA remix ridiculously signals a climb up the social ladder), and on and on until you get used to it and have to pay attention to the hackneyed family drama and endlessly torpid romance. I give Boyle full points for finally exploiting the formal possibilities of the "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" (Even better than My Best Friend!) A format even more rigid than that might do him good; for a man who sprawls out so over the place, there's no surprises here. It's like a movie that you'd see on TNT, then switch off after the commercial break.