Bottom Line: Exuberant storytelling and exhilarating visuals outweigh mawkish scenarios in Slumdog Millionaire.
Have you ever watched an outstanding contestant on a trivia game show and wondered about the exact moments he or she acquired each tidbit of knowledge? In his most vibrant film in recent years, director Danny Boyle (28 Days Later, Trainspotting) relocates to the impoverished streets of India to answer just that question, among many others.
The narrative begins when 18-year-old Jamal Malik is one question away from winning the top prize on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?. Though born in the slums of Mumbai, he has worked his way up to become a contestant on the popular show. In typical Millionaire fashion, time runs out just before the final question, and Jamal must wait until the next day to answer. Of course the audience will have to wait until the end of the movie to discover his fate.
When Jamal is arrested on suspicion of cheating, the brutal scenes of severe beating and torture that follow set the stage for the grisly violence that pervades the movie. Government officials play back tapings of each question and demand how Jamal, “an ignorant slumdog,” could have known answers to questions that stump well-educated businessmen. As the boy begins to explain, flashbacks reveal each point in his life when he picked up a crucial piece of information. Of course, the vignettes are in chronological order and capture the major turning points in Jamal’s transition from young boy to teenager.
If left in less talented hands, Slumdog would risk implosion from trying to be too many things at once. It’s a coming of age saga that spans a decade with a love story at its core. It’s a tragedy, drama, thriller and comedy. Yet Boyle and writer Simon Beaufroy (The Full Monty) juggle the tones effortlessly through a consistent narrative pull.
Through frenetic, often disorienting, camera work, Boyle captures the essence of Mumbai — a city that is full of both literal and figurative life. Each scene bristles with overwhelming energy. Guiding us through it all are the contrasting character arcs of Jamal and his resourceful but dodgy brother, Salim. Jamal’s good-natured persistence is far less riveting than Salim’s downward descent, as Jamal becomes increasingly more willing to do anything to work his way up.
Making full use of the obligatory game show metaphor, Slumdog relentlessly beats in its Candide-esque notions of history being written. All the talk of destiny may be just a ruse to cover up the many plot contrivances that would otherwise require much suspension of disbelief. As far as the big picture is concerned, Slumdog only skims the surface of themes such as India’s drastic commercial boom and America’s ongoing cultural influence. Such significant ideas should have had a much sharper resonance than they did. Nevertheless, the most glaring setbacks in the movie are the painfully sappy interactions between Jamal and his leading lady, Latika. I couldn’t tell if these moments were an intentional nod to Bollywood melodrama, just plain bad acting, or both.
All nitpicking aside, Jamal’s epic journey is one that demands viewing on the big screen. Slumdog is truly an unparalleled cinematic experience that has the potential to stand the test of time as one of Boyle’s most groundbreaking films. And yes, that’s my final answer.