I’m not sure why Danny Boyle’s films have gotten progressively dumber over the years. In some ways his career has followed the same trajectory as former PM Tony Blair. Both Boyle and Blair debuted on the world stage in the mid-’90s, and like Damien Hirst, Noel Gallagher and the rest of the coke-fueled Brit-pack, they managed to surf the Cool Britannia tsunami for all it was worth.
But Blair ruined his track record in Iraq and now it seems Boyle has wrecked his in India. Or, more accurately, an imagined India cynically designed to manipulate the heartstrings and tiny minds of American cinemagoers.
Cravenly grasping for American audiences wasn’t always on Boyle’s agenda. He started off making very good films. His tightly wound and wonderfully chilling 1994 feature Shallow Grave was followed up with the era-defining post modern tour-de-force Trainspotting. Boyle had balls in those days. He took Irvine Welsh’s drug-addled narrative and put it up on the screen – complete with incomprehensible Scottish accents – just as Welsh had hallucinated it. And it worked, brilliantly, thanks to inspired casting, imaginative direction and fearless scripting.
Between then and Slumdog Millionaire, however, things have gone downhill, with perhaps 28 Days Later being the only decent movie he made. The rest of them – A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach, Millions, Sunshine and the execrable 28 Months Later – appear to be nothing less than a string of failed attempts to garner a US audience. And now, finally, with the deplorable Slumdog Millionaire (the dumbest of the lot), Boyle has achieved his aim. Perhaps now he can go back to making decent movies.
It isn’t just the overly simplistic boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl script that is the problem. Everywhere in the film, Boyle has remorselessly dumbed it down so that even the thickest of audiences will be able to consume it without fear of indigestion.
Subtitles must have been perceived by Boyle as being far too difficult for US audiences. So he’s removed them from the traditional area at the bottom of the screen and pasted them in the middle of the action, usually near the character who is talking. Thus the audience is saved from having to move their eyes. Bravo Mr Boyle! But why stop there? Why not just put a speech balloon around the subtitle? The comic-movie nexus would thus be complete!
Predictably, the main characters represent the aesthetically asymmetrical romantic juxtaposition that we’re increasingly being fed in movies these days. Sure, we’ll believe that a fugly, jug-eared, miserable, socially retarded untouchable can romance and win one of the most beautiful women in the world. Why not? Seth Rogen does it all the time.
Production design appears to have been mainly concerned with creating G-rated none-too-shocking tableaux of Indian poverty. So as to not upset US audiences too much, the dire circumstances that so many Indians live in is toned down dramatically. Empty plastic bottles and skinny dogs are the logotypes used throughout the film to indicate a lower socio-demographic location.
And, hey, dismal poverty can be fun! Our hero is a rascally young scamp who has all sorts of Huck Finn-like adventures with his untouchable pals. Outrunning fat cops, scamming money from gullible tourists, train surfing and cadging food are all fun and laffs when you’re an orphaned kid living on the streets of Mumbai.
But even if we forget all the above and let Boyle’s romantic view of poverty in India wash over us, we still have to contend with a brain-dead plot that makes Disney look like Wittgenstein. I haven’t read the book the film was based on but someone’s taking the piss.
I can only conclude that you can get away with this sort of storytelling if you set it in some far flung locale which has sufficient distractions (skinny dogs, game shows, cricket) for the audience to suspend its critical faculties. How in god’s name did this win an Academy Award? I thought Crash was a cynically manipulative piece of filmmaking but Slumdog Millionaire leaves it for dead.