Monday, December 1, 2008

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (R) - 120 min.



Danny Boyle made a minor splash on the festival circuit back in 1994, with his debut film Shallow Grave. Two years later he released his second (and still greatest) effort, Trainspotting. He has only made one genuinely bad film since (remember The Beach?), but despite some setbacks he continues to tackle a variety of genres utilizing a vast array of inspired methods.

His latest offering, Slumdog Millionaire, was a big hit with the festival crowd a little earlier in the year. Audiences and critics didn't know what to expect from this strangely titled film with a primarily Indian cast, and that's probably why it was so well-received. But now that the air of mystery has dissipated and the accolades have been hurled its way, I feel many people will start paying closer attention to the film itself, rather than the hoopla that has preceded its wide release.

Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is an 18-year-old from India who has found himself on that country's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? On the verge of winning 20 million rupees he is arrested and tortured by police forces who assume he has cheated his way to the final question. Eager to clear his name and go back on the show, he begins telling his interrogators how he happened to know the answers to each of the questions. We see him as a young boy trying to survive on the harsh streets of India. While he encounters many difficult experiences growing up, they inevitably offer him the answers to those questions he will one day get the chance to answer. It's a wonderful script, adapted for the screen by Simon Beaufoy from the novel Q and A by Vikas Swarup. Boyle's direction is indeed a marvel, but it is no more impressive than the amazing techniques he employed 12 years earlier in Trainspotting.

The three actors who play Jamal throughout his younger years do a great job, though Oscar buzz for Dev Patel should be quietly brushed aside. I will say that it was nice to see a film chronicle a single character with multiple actors who actually look like they could be the same person. And all without resorting to CGI trickery. The real special FX in this movie are the bird's-eye view of life in the midst of a horrendously packed city like Mumbai. Jamal's various chases through the populated region is nothing short of exhilarating, and the smart editing and invigorating soundtrack can't help but make the viewer feel like they're on a rollercoaster. In fact, the film's exuberant style subtly works against it in the long run, if only because it somewhat sugarcoats the hardships that these children are being forced to endure.

Nevertheless, that is a minor flaw in an otherwise enjoyable tale. Bringing the Indian tale closer to the hearts of American mainstream audiences is the story's romantic aspect. As we watch Jamal grow up we witness his budding affections for the young girl Latika, whose life takes as many unexpected twists as his own. The three actresses who make up Latika aren't quite as convincing, but her final incarnation, portrayed by Indian model Freida Pinto is the most affecting. If none of the performers in this movie go on to do much else, you can count on seeing Miss Pinto's face on the cover of various magazines for years to come.
Slumdog Millionaire is a lovely movie that hits all the right notes, though I don't expect any Juno-like box office success. Fox Searchlight has done a decent online campaign for the movie, but my parents, who would probably enjoy it, had never even heard of it. That's not a good sign this deep into Oscar season. With a slew of awards-friendly films on the horizon, it may be difficult for a movie like this, however touching, to find a wide audience. And it will probably need to gross at least $50 million domestically to have a real shot at Best Picture in February. Of course, with many Oscar hopefuls still relatively unseen, it's possible that this could still become the little indie that could. And despite its formulaic tendencies it is still less saccharine and contrived than previous indie darlings like Life is Beautiful and...well, Juno.

Will you see a better film this year? Chances are you already have. I'd still put summer smashes Wall-E and The Dark Knight ahead of this one. But if you can try and cast aside the hyperbole that has been heaped on the film, you should emerge from the theater with a smile on your face and a tingle in your chest. And hey...you'll know a little more trivia than when you stepped up to the box office two hours earlier.

Rating: B+

Review by Keil Shults

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