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Slumdog Millionaire

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.

Director 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.

Occasionally, 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.

Derek McCaw

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