Slumdog Millionaire is a movie so original and innovative that it snuck up on me, even after catching all its advance buzz from film festival screenings and fellow critics. For a large chunk of the picture, I sat there enjoying and admiring it, yet also feeling that I wasn't having the emotional connection I did with some of the other great recent movies, like Milk or Frost/Nixon. Then, in the final half hour, all the different things I'd seen started to come together, fitting into place like a puzzle, and it became clear: I'd fallen head over heels for this film. As the end credits rolled, all I could think was, I've got to see this again, soon!
In the opening scene, a young man named Jamal (Dev Patel) is interrogated by police. Hailing from the slums of Mumbai, Jamal has somehow managed to get onto the Indian version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" and is one question away from the big prize. The cops suspect him of cheating. After all, how could a punk kid from the slums ever accumulate the knowledge necessary to win?
The film answers those questions by interspersing Jamal's appearance on the show with flashbacks from his life. For instance, when one question asks who starred in a particular film, we see a younger Jamal conspiring with a friend - and going to great lengths - to get the actor's autograph during a personal appearance. From there, we witness Jamal enduring life in the slums. His mother is killed in an act of religious intolerance. His brother slowly starts to drift toward gang activity. He encounters a sleazy con artist who exploits children, forcing them to beg for money and then pocketing what they collect. Most importantly, we see Jamal meet a young girl named Latika. She is also parentless, but is not lucky enough to escape the clutches of a local gang leader. Jamal at one point returns to try to save her, only to find that others want her as much as he does.
And then there is "Millionaire." We come to understand how the School of Life has taught Jamal the answers - assuming, of course, that he hasn't cheated. Whether or not he wins is not as important as why he's on the show in the first place. That particular question is answered to our overwhelming satisfaction.
Slumdog Millionaire was directed by Danny Boyle, whose career proves that all great filmmakers take chances that sometimes pay off (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) and sometimes don't (A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach). A less adventurous director could not have made this movie. The story is too offbeat, too non-linear. It requires someone who can find the poetry in it, someone who can combine action, drama, comedy, romance, suspense, and game shows - all while keeping the human center of the story intact and not letting it lapse into caricature. What a tall order that is! Boyle pulls it off, using his penchant for creative visuals, pacing, and editing to tell the story in an interesting, engrossing way that continually catches us off guard.
This is, among many things, a story of contrasts. Jamal's life in the slums is portrayed in an unflinching way. The reality of gangs, violence, and child exploitation are all clearly spelled out. Growing up like this, you'd expect Jamal to be ruined by them, yet he isn't. He has somehow found his way onto a game show, which is by nature light and frivolous despite the large sums of money at stake. This contrast fuels the central mystery: Why is he there? Is he trying to fund his way out of the slums? Does he have a way to cheat, to screw the system that has forced him to grow up in poverty? Or does he have some other motive? As the film plays out, you get little pieces here and there, ultimately leading to a conclusion that makes emotional sense. Sometimes contrasts are life's way of trying to right itself.
I don't recall ever seeing a movie quite like Slumdog Millionaire. It melds so many seemingly disparate things in ways that you wouldn't think would work. The film begins with a brutal beating and ends with a Bollywood musical number. Everything but the kitchen sink is in between. And it all works. There's an old theory about storytelling which says that the "hero's journey" is one of the most reliable of plots. Young Jamal has a journey so amazing - and so diverse - that you get swept up in it, always waiting eagerly to see where he goes next. Because we know he comes from poverty and ends up on a game show, we understand that he could go anywhere.
Let's go back to the ending for a second. No spoilers here. The story has a lot to do with gangs and violence. Jamal is surrounded by them. People he knows are corrupted by them. He could easily have gone down the same path. Perhaps more than anything, Slumdog Millionaire is about taking chances. Rather than taking the easy road, Jamal tries to stay true to himself, to get out of a life that could potentially lead nowhere. He recognizes that playing it safe won't do him any favors. Following in his spirit, the film takes all kinds of chances in its visual style and time-fractured plotting. It continually surprises and delights you. The more I think about Slumdog Millionaire, the more I love it.
( out of four)
Slumdog Millionaire is rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language. The running time is 2 hours.
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