Slumdog Millionaire (United Kingdom/United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Slumdog Millionaire Poster

Slumdog Millionaire comes from director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, who fashion what is at heart a romance into a mystery and a thriller with Dickensian undertones. It's tough not to think of David Copperfield when we see the "orphanage" to which the film's main character is consigned during his youth. What's more, this filmmaking team has found a new and inventive way to approach the storyline that not only invigorates the material but adds a whole new layer to it. The result is magical and life affirming, and will enrapture those who are not scared away by the mention of "subtitles." For the record, the majority of the dialogue is in English, although there are lengthy segments during the film's first 40 minutes when characters speak in Hindi. The way in which Boyle handles the subtitles is playful and colorful, and entirely unlike what we're accustomed to see. This is a subtitle movie made with subtitle-phobes in mind.

In a way, it's tough to believe that a film that begins with such a hard edge ends up being as enriching and deliriously joyful as this one. The opening sequences have an ominous undertone, with scenes of torture taking place in the bowels of some dark, dank police station. When the victim refuses to give the answers his captors expect, electrodes are attached to his toes and the power is turned on. This scene is one of the reasons why the MPAA in its wisdom elected to give Slumdog Millionaire an undeserved R instead of the coveted PG-13. Now, teenagers are unable to see the film without parental accompaniment - yet no such restriction limits the access to the cacophony of carnage that is Max Payne. Go figure.

Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is a poor boy from the slums of Mumbai who finds himself center stage opposite a smug host being watched by 90 million people on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. Improbably, Jamal is able to answer question after question, responding to the penultimate query and earning 10 million rupees just as time runs out for the episode. The next day, he will return with a chance at the biggest prize. However, that night, the police take Jamal in for questioning, certain that he has cheated. After being tortured, he explains to them how he knew the answer to every question. This results in a flashback-rich tour of Jamal's life and the two recurring characters in it: his violent brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal), and the girl he loves, Latika (Freida Pinto). Growing up together, they were the "Three Musketeers" until circumstances tore them apart. It soon becomes apparent that Slumdog Millionaire isn't actually about how Jamal did so well on a TV game show, but whether there will be a happy ending to his found her-lost her-found her-lost her-found her- lost her relationship with Latika. With Garry Marshall, a happy ending would be mandatory, but Danny Boyle isn't nearly as conventional.

The film has all the elements necessary to make it a major winner in general release, and a dark horse Oscar contender. It's superbly acted, wonderfully photographed, and full of rich, unconventional location work. Dev Patel has us rooting for the shy, good-natured Jamal from the beginning. Freida Pinto is beguiling as Latika. Anil Kapoor, a big name in Bollywood, is deliciously devious as the gameshow host whose motives are ruled by more than a desire to see his program get good ratings. Imagine Alex Trebek after having been seduced by the dark side of the force. The story works on multiple levels - it can be seen as a sweeping romance, as a thriller, or as a glimpse at the ways in which a fast-developing economy is convulsing the fabric of Indian society. Some of the film's funniest and most satirical scenes occur within a massive call bank where customer service operatives try to convince callers that they are not, in fact, located in a foreign country. The movie ends with a grand Bollywood song-and-dance number that is not to be missed. Placed between the conclusion of the story proper and the end credits, this sequence dares anyone to leave the theater in anything but the best of spirits.

Some films keep viewers on the outside looking in, able to appreciate the production in technical terms but not on other, more basic levels. This is not the case with Slumdog Millionaire. Boyle's feature draws the viewer in, immersing him in a fast-moving, engaging narrative featuring a protagonist who is so likeable it's almost unfair. The movie has moments of heartbreak and tragedy but it is ultimately uplifting and contains pretty much all the instances an audience will want. Boyle has come a long way to get to this point from Shallow Grave and Trainspotting but, after experiencing the pleasure of Slumdog Millionaire, I'm glad it's a road he has elected to take. ("I am located just around the corner from you, Ma'am…")

Slumdog Millionaire (United Kingdom/United States, 2008)

Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor
Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy
Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle
Music: A.R. Rahman
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2008-11-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence)
Subtitles: Some English subtitled Hindi
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1