Review: Slumdog Millionaire
4.5 stars (out of 5)
R. Kurt Osenlund
At long last, the season of great movies is upon us, and Danny Boyle's unattractively titled but gorgeously entertaining “Slumdog Millionaire” may be its most pleasurable and wondrous gift. Reel-to-reel, end-to-end, this fresh spin on the rags-to-riches love story is furnished with sights and sounds to discover, behold, and cherish. Written by Simon Beaufoy (“The Full Monty”), who transcendently adapts the Indian novel, “Q and A,” by Vikas Swarup, the film is about a skid-row teenager from Mumbai who winds up in the hot seat and wins big on the Hindi rendition of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” It's about much more, of course, and how that more is depicted makes “Slumdog” a spectacle not to be missed.
The underdog tale is bookended by an on-screen multiple choice question, one of many visual ingenuities that director Boyle uses to amp up “Slumdog”'s abundant energy and rollicking pace. It asks us how dirt-poor, uneducated Jamal Malik (coulda'-fooled-me newcomer Dev Patel) got to be one question away from scoring 20 million rupees on a prime time phenomenon that stumps doctors and scholars. Is it luck? Is it destiny? Is he a genius? Did he cheat? The latter is the belief of the show's bully of a host (Anil Kapoor, who makes Meredith Vieira look like Bambi), as well as Mumbai's draconian police force, which resorts to torturous tactics to get an explanation out of Jamal. The focused teen – whose job at the time of the live broadcast is a lowly tea server at a major communications company – gives one, but an admittance of guilt plays no part in it, and as he indulges the cops with his tempestuous autobiography, “Slumdog” takes glorious flight.
In flashbacks (which take up much of the two-hour running time), Jamal reveals the events of his impoverished life that serendipitously account for his knowledge of each answer. How best to describe this major nugget? Imagine if you splashed the technicolor dreamscapes of “The Wizard of Oz” across the brisk, gritty ghettos of “City of God” and kept the tone and luster of both worlds on an even keel. Sound impossible? Boyle pulls it off – splendidly. He takes us back to such terrible tragedies as the murder of Jamal's mother; such calamities as the fall of Jamal and his brother, Salim, into the hands of a child-exploiting local gang; and the starkly, inevitably different life paths of the two boys (Jamal and Salim are each played by three different actors of different ages).
Boyle keeps the rough realism on high (prepare to see kids blinded and plenty of people shot), but balances it with exuberant color, innovative technique, and a sense of buoyant hopefulness. What a magical moviemaker Boyle is, able to inject soaring fantasy and staggering beauty into what at first seem like such unlikely, Earth-bound places. He clinched a similar victory in 2004 with “Millions,” a fancifully-told story of two brothers from London who must deal with the real-world effects of their manna from heaven. The British director has an unprecedented way with children that wonderfully compliments his oft-youthful style and gives his brighter movies a mass appeal. Where he goes and what he does with the the younger Jamal and Salim will win your heart.
Credit also cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, Boyle's go-to camera artist (“Millions,” “28 Days Later”) who here uses oblique angles, shimmering sunlight, and rapid-fire on-location shooting to create brilliant sequences. The ways in which both the inner-city squalor and upper-crust decadence of Mumbai's culture are captured are amazing. After careening through the crime-ridden streets at low perspectives and blistering speeds, the camera pulls out to show a stunning patchwork of slum roofs. As the boys migrate across the the nation, there are scenes on trains and at the Taj Mahal that are filled with wonder. And when the narrative circles back around to Jamal's present-day interrogation, the feel of the film shifts from mystical and dreamlike to modern and ultra-cool. All of this is backed by an exotic, up-tempo soundtrack courtesy of composer A.R. Rahman and artists like M.I.A. The elements combine to make “Slumdog” a dynamic testament to survival and life-affirmation.
Pumping through Jamal's chronology and spilling into the present is an old-fashioned, undying love that faces hurdles from the first spark. Latika (played, like the boys, by multiple actors in the recollections and by the model-flawless Freido Pinto in the here-and-now) is Jamal's ultimate desire and his reason for going on the show (“I thought she'd be watching,” he sighs). She's also the desire of a lineage of gangsters, a threat that follows the star-crossed pair from past to present. The romance is meant to be the movie's glue, and it does hold all the pieces together, but it goes from sticky to dry in quieter moments due to slightly cliched dialogue and sub-par acting on the part of Pinto. Since these moments are so few amidst “Slumdog”'s hyperkinesis, we need them, and the failure to fully connect with them is a problem.
But it's a problem that surely won't eclipse the overall, grand experience of the film, which showers the audience with rewards. Even the subtitles and title cards flow forth like confetti, and crowds will want to stick around for the Bollywood-derived end credits. “Slumdog” is a unique and jubilant entertainment, and while it may not make you cry, it'll certainly make you laugh and may just make you cheer. So...my final answer? A (minus).