On Who Wants
To Be A Millionaire?, that moment before the final answer
can be tricky. So it is in reviewing Danny Boyle's Slumdog
Millionaire, about a contestant on the Indian version
of the popular game show. Alternately charming and thrilling
while being also contrived and often predictable, it's just
hard to say if this is truly a good movie, or an average
movie done extremely well.
By now you've
heard the plot, as current events in Mumbai/Bombay have
thrust this movie front and center. Jamal Malik (Dev Patel)
comes from the streets, completely uneducated, and captures
the attention of a nation by answering the progressively
difficult questions on the world-renowned game show. A "chai
wallah," Jamal seemingly has no way to know the answers.
Yet of course,
almost every question seems to weave through the tapestry
of his life story, which he recounts to a suspicious police
chief while they review a video tape of his first appearance.
It's a sparkly, charming old-style Hollywood framework,
as designed by screenwriter Simon Beaufoy.
It's not all
a fairy tale, as Jamal's childhood has been fraught with
danger. Orphaned by anti-Muslim violence, Jamal and his
older bullying brother Salim (Madhur Mital) brave the streets
of Mumbai and beyond, each learning a different lesson about
the relative goodness of humanity.
For Salim, it's
all about the Benjamins - quite literally, as he becomes
proficient at scamming American tourists - and the power
that can buy. What keeps Jamal on track is a shining heart,
directed at fellow orphan Latika (Freida Pinto). He sees
her as the third musketeer in their trio, or at least claims
to, when the truth is that love has captured him.
It never becomes
cloying, because the film remains fairly honest about the
violence and corruption that tinges Jamal's life. At one
point, the trio falls into the hands of a Fagin-like street
hustler, whose crimes become far more explicit than anything
Dickens dared explain.
Boyle clearly has an affection and affinity for Mumbai,
as the film is beautifully shot, full of the vibrancy and
chaos of the streets. (And in one place, the sewers.) Despite
being "slumdogs," both Patel and Pinto have moments of being
appropriate fairy tale royalty.
though, it's just hard to get past the coincidence of the
structure. Wisely, Beaufoy doesn't tie every question directly
in to Jamal's past, but still many of them seem way too
convenient. Or maybe that's just me - the climactic question
almost defied my ability to suspend disbelief, until I realized
that most people would make an incorrect assumption about
it. It is a tough one.
So it's not
quite the feel good movie of the year, though it is alternately
charming and violent. (Violently charming?) Patel delivers
a realistic performance that never gets in the way of his
being almost too good to be true.
But it's hard
to say if this movie is truthful. That anti-Muslim
violence never really intrudes into the overall scheme of
things, and it seems a lot of ugliness gets swept under
the carpet unless/until it needs to move the plot along,
instead of being a day to day reality.
I can't give
my final answer, except that Slumdog Millionaire
is worth phoning a friend and heading out to see it.