Think you got it bad? Jamal, the hero of Danny Boyle’s new film “Slumdog Millionaire” was orphaned as a young child due to religious strife, reduced to begging and stealing to survive on the streets, lost the love of his life… twice… and is now being tortured by police after being accused of cheating just one question away from taking the big prize on India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”
Yet despite this potentially depressing setup, “Slumdog” is actually one of most life-affirming movies to come along in years, and one that defies simple classification. It’s a mystery, a drama with many comedic moments, a polemic for understanding those not like ourselves, and a good old-fashioned love story. Oh, and a little bit of Bollywood musical. About the only thing “Slumdog Millionaire” doesn’t seem to have is Colin Firth, and I can’t guarantee he’s not in there somewhere.
Eighteen year old British newcomer Dev Patel stars as Jamal, and there’s a good chance we’ll be seeing this kid around a lot in the future. Patel has an effortless charm that instantly sucks us in and makes us empathize with Jamal even when the question of his innocence or guilt is suspect. But then, human nature probably helps when, the first time you meet the main character, he’s getting the snot beat out of him before being tied up and electrocuted.
The fact that Jamal’s inquisitor, played by the always amazing Irrfan Khan, is willing to listen to the allegedly illiterate street urchin’s story as to how he knew the answers might seem hollow to some, but it’s an interesting way of bridging the gaps between all of Jamal’s life experiences as they pertain to the quiz show. Certainly, some of those links do not work as well as Boyle may have hoped, but it’s such a simple concept executed so wonderfully that most will likely forgive these minor transgressions. We learn how Jamal became an orphan with only his brother Salim as a companion, how Jamal met Latika, the girl who would become the love of his life, how the trio’s Oliver Twist-ish encounters with a Fagan-like grifter would set the young lovers on different paths, how Jamal and Latika would be brought together by chance only to be separated by the power and greed of another, how Jamal would ultimately end up on the show and how all of these incidents would inform his worldview without any formal schooling and give him the knowledge to answer the quiz show questions.
Yet as good as young Mr. Patel is, the true discovery of “Slumdog” is Freida Pinto, the Indian actress who plays Latika. Like Scarlett Johansson in “Lost in Translation,” Ms. Pinto is several years younger than her character, and like Ms. Johansson, Ms. Pinto carries a grace, strength and maturity far beyond her years that helps anchor the film. It’s not hard to figure out why Jamal would go to the lengths he goes through to get this young woman back in his life.
Mr. Irrfan, who American audiences might know from “A Mighty Heart,” “The Namesake” or “The Darjeeling Limited,” doesn’t really have much of a role here, his job is to push the story forward each time Jamal is done with a section of his story. It takes not just a good actor but one of uncommon principle to make such a thankless role so compelling. Not that there really was much “The Full Monty” screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, adapting Vikas Swarup’s serial novel “Q and A,” could have done. Beaufoy takes the basics of Swarup’s novel and re-imagines it to add a sense of immediacy necessary to keep the cinematic narrative flowing more smoothly. The film’s one misstep, both in the script and the performance on screen, was the attempt to create some kind of bad guy in the game show host. One would think a game show host, especially a show like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” would understand the show needs a big winner every once in a while, to keep audiences interested in the show. Yet here is this slimeball, opening mocking Jamal during the show and taunting him during shooting breaks, until he calls the cops on the kid, accusing him of cheating. Can you imagine Regis Philbin or Meredith Viera calling the NYPD because some player was about to win a million dollars? And since when would this be the host’s responsibility in the first place and not the producers? It’s a necessary distraction, since we don’t have a story without that turn, but I’m sure there could have been a better way to handle this.
”Slumdog Millionare” is the third collaboration between Danny Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who is best known in cinema circles for being the cameraman for shooting several of the Dogme95 movies and two Lars Von Trier movies “Dogville” and Manderlay.” Mantle has made his career on the Dogme95 principle of natural lighting and lack of pretention, so it’s strange to see so many little visual tricks across the screen, but there is no arguing it’s a gorgeous looking movie, and producers of the “Millionaire” shows worldwide might want to bring Mantle in to help them re-light their sets.
Some people might fault “Slumdog” because they perceive it as a fluff piece full of the kind of schmaltz unbecoming to modern cinemagoers. But, to paraphrase one of Twentieth Century music’s great poets, some people want to fill the world with silly love movies, and what’s wrong with thatr Some of the greatest movies ever made were conceived to be nothing more than populist entertainment, and they continue to entertain today because of that timeless quality that comes with a well-made film. “Slumdog Millionare” may have flown under the radar during its production, but it will stick around a lot longer than momentary flashes in the pan.
Oh, and if you are a fan of Bollywood movies, as I am, make sure to stay for the first part of the end credits. It’s just a little bonus treat that will make you smile just that much more.Rating: A