Four stars (R)
Young Jamel Malik (Dev Patel from the clever, racy BBC series Skins) is one question away from winning it all on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Ninety million people are watching his every move, including the powers-that-be, who wonder how some impoverished kid from the slums of Mumbai could come up with so many correct answers on the enormously popular game show.
Time runs out for the episode. The final question will be asked tomorrow. Instead of relaxing and preparing for the big day, Jamel finds himself in police custody, being tortured by officers convinced he is cheating. After suffering great pain, he sits back and explains how he came to know each of the answers. As he talks, we witness a series of flashbacks that reveal his Dickensian life.
Danny Boyle (Millions, 28 Days Later, Trainspotting) directed Slumdog Millionaire from a screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, The Full Monty) based on Vikas Swarup’s novel, Q&A. The film is substantial and quite entertaining, by turns harrowing, tragic, heartwarming and funny. When I first realized the basic structure of the production — excitement as Jamel is asked a question on the glitzy game show set/interrogation about the question at the police station/flashback about said question — I was concerned that the pattern would get tiresome, but the vignettes proved rich enough that it didn’t.
The flashbacks are compelling and filled with adventure, as we get to know Jamel, his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) and Latika (Freida Pinto), the girl of Jamel’s dreams. In addition to highlighting the trio and their evolving relationships, the segments also provide a look at what it’s like to live with next to no money in a colorful, sprawling city.
Obviously, the current real-life horrors in Mumbai will be brought to mind as you watch the movie. I saw the movie before the terrorist attacks, so all I can tell you is that I’m looking forward to seeing it again.
Something to consider: Every so often, critics latch onto an independent film and gush over it so much that they set up unreasonably high expectations for the audience. Remember all the hoo-haw over Little Miss Sunshine? Something like that is happening with this film, so don’t let the rapturous reviews get you overly hyped. Slumdog Millionaire is a dandy movie, but if you walk into the theater with phrases like “A masterpiece!” and “Look out, Oscar!” bouncing around your head, you are setting yourself up for a let-down.
I was engrossed by the rough, bold nature of the flashbacks (in case you missed it before, the word Dickensian is appropriate) and the immediacy of the game show segments, hosted by the larger-than-life Prem (played by larger-than-life Bollywood star Anil Kapoor). Late in the film, the story becomes a little more conventional, which disappointed me just a bit, though I suspect many others will be relieved by the turn towards tradition.
Danny Boyle and company have crafted a film that feels like a project of citizens of the world, not outsiders looking in. Hell, they even came up with an innovative way of presenting the Hindi words in the subtitled parts of the story. Slumdog Millionaire. No gushing here, but I recommend it.