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Slumdog Millionaire   A-

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Danny Boyle (co-directed by Loveleen Tandan)
Writer: Simon Beaufoy (based on the novel by Vikas Swarup)
Cast: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, Tanay Hemant Chheda, Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala.

Review by Rob Vaux

The rejection of realism plays a large part in Slumdog Millionaire's success. It never makes claims to plausibility, instead embracing the heightened social melodrama favored by Charles Dickens and his ilk. Its central idea depends upon extreme contrivance, and it leaves little doubt about its final destination. But at the same time, it immerses itself so completely in the vibrant rhythms of its world -- an exaggerated Bombay where hero and heroine play out a star-crossed love affair -- that its truths feel as real as any docudrama.

To explain how that works is to miss a key part of its success. Rarely has a film so embodied the notion of showing rather than telling. The roving camera captures India's lower classes in oversaturated colors while providing brief glimpses of extreme privilege purchased by hook or by crook. Its ferocious joie de vivre centers on the journey of a poor Muslim boy named Jamal (Dev Patel) and the forces which shape his fate. Individual sequences concern themselves with Big Issue ideas -- poverty, violence, religion, sexuality -- yet remain keenly individualistic at their heart. And like several other films from director Danny Boyle, there's a gigantic pile of money involved: as much a threat as a promise to whoever comes near it.

The purse strings are held by the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, which is just as big on the subcontinent as it was in England or the U.S. Jamal finds himself on the hot seat there after years of struggle in the slums. He lost his family at an early age and survived as an orphan through all manner of heartache and woe. Now he serves tea at a tech-support firm, pining for his lost love Latika (Freida Pinto) and brooding over the fate of his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal), who abandoned him in favor of the local criminal syndicate. The spot on WWTBAM? is a seemingly fleeting bit of fortune -- one of those too-good-to-be-true opportunities which always fades like morning dew. Only this time, something miraculous happens.

Each question asked by the smug host (Anil Kapoor) keys into a specific event in Jamal's life. Boyle and editor Chris Dickens then send us tumbling into his past to explore the details while he sweats under the lights: Fagin-esque criminals recruit he and Salim to run scams, tourists are relieved of their valuables by the pair at the Taj Mahal, fellow orphan Latika is rescued and lost multiple times, and so on. The power of those memories allows him to find the correct answers, each of which bumps up the winnings and moves us forward to another question. As the streak continues and the payoff sprouts zeros, ugly questions of cheating arise. Yet despite a brutal police interrogation, the evidence really and truly points to the most fantastic of coincidences. Jamal doesn't know much; he only knows these specific answers. Destiny, we are assured, is playing a hand here.

The point isn't whether all of it is implausible -- it is -- but how easily that implausibility seduces us. The vignettes on display are no less clever for their mechanistic nature; indeed, part of the pleasure derives from wondering how they will tie back into the game show and the ways they illuminate Jamal's reasons for being there. Boyle has an outsider's fascination for India, which he feeds by diving headlong into its whirling soul. The melodrama is as much Bollywood as Dickens, and like Dickens, it seeks to illuminate social conditions amid the twists and turns of the plot. In that sense, at least, the people here feel very real: surrounded by stifling desperation, yet also experiencing small, wonderful moments that give them hope. Jamal and his fellow slum-dwellers refuse to see themselves as victims, and continue to believe in benevolent fate even as their harsh existence chips away at its edges.

Rather than detracting from that dynamic, the hyperactive atmosphere only heightens its impact. Without the delicacy of Simon Beafoy's screenplay, it might have been unwatchable. Instead, it takes ferocious hold of the audience and propels them forward past all questions or doubts. We become hooked because Boyle and his colleagues are so hooked, and the audacity with which they share their emotions is impossible to resist. Fox Searchlight has a knack for this kind of movie, and they clearly hope Slumdog Millionaire will follow in the box-office footsteps of Sideways, Juno, and Little Miss Sunshine. From a pure filmmaking perspective, it's already earned a spot at the table: not by recycling those earlier joys, but by finding its own unique way to express them.

Review published 11.19.2008.

Also read: Q&A: Danny Boyle.

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