Slumdog Millionaire (2008) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for some violence, disturbing images and language
Running time: 120 min.
Cast: Dev Patel, Anil Kapoor, Freida Pinto, Irrfan Khan, Madhur Mittal, Tanay Chheda, Ayush Mahesh Khedakar, Rubina Ali, Azharrudin Ismail,
Director: Danny Boyle
Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy (based on the novel, "Q&A" by Vikas Swarup)
Review published March 8, 2009
A strange odyssey of the boy that would be a game show millionaire, told in a series of flashbacks to describe how an impoverished, uneducated teenager from the Dharavi slums could know the answers to difficult questions on the Hindi version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, for which it won 8 (including Best Picture), director Danny Boyle (Sunshine, 28 Days Later) and screenwriting collaborator Simon Beaufoy (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, This is Not a Love Song) craft an engaging and ambitious film that is sometimes difficult to watch, but impossible to turn away from.
Some of you who love this film will probably think the fact that I consider Slumdog to be a good film, and not a great one, to be a negative review. Not at all. If you've never seen a film like this before, you would definitely think it groundbreaking. However, any who've seen the near-masterpiece called City of God will find much of what you see in this film to be very familiar, only injected with more traditional romance and moments of sheer entertainment, and, of course, an Indian flavor. City of God had an unrelenting sense of dismal agony, fear and misery that Slumdog Millionaire doesn't maintain for long, as Boyle and Beaufoy are much more keen on showing that, even in the worst of conditions, there is hope of escape. Everyone can find love, fame, money, and happiness, if willing to try.
At its core, Slumdog Millionaire exists mostly to shed light on the abhorrent conditions in which many Indian youth live on a daily basis. Litter permeates every nook and cranny of the densely overpopulated slums. Children are taken and exploited in organized beggar rings, many blinded or maimed in order to secure greater earning potential from the tourists. Young girls are rounded up to provide entertainment in the red light districts, offering up their virginity to the highest bidder. Crime provides the only avenue for many to even have a chance to climb out, though most involved are perpetuating those very same conditions that made their lives intolerable.
Slumdog Millionaire is a film of many contrasts. Perhaps the widest comes through the juxtaposition of the high-tech world of television game shows and world from which Jamal (Patel, "Skins"), the 18-year-old who has practically never known what it is to have electricity, was born into. Fresh, running water had been a luxury. Many times, he would be without a roof over his head. In one sense, Boyle does a magnificent directorial turn by giving us a real feel for what it must be like to live in the miserable squalor of poverty in one of the most populous countries in the world. If you are reading this now, it must mean you have access to the internet, and you've probably always had such comforts as plumbing and toilets, and would be shocked to find that billions of people don't have ready access to basic staples of comfortable living. One scene shows youth and elders struggling to gain entry to an outdoor bathroom facility that is literally just a hole in a small wooden hut jutting off of a steep drop. Waste matter literally just drops down into a pit below.
Where Slumdog Millionaire becomes somewhat problematic is in its storytelling. As each question on the "Millionaire" game show is asked, we see a flashback to Jamal's childhood that brings to life why he might know the answer to the question. Each answer just so happens to have been tied to a major life event for the lad. It's probably the best way to tell the tale, but it is rather formulaic, and sometimes a bit contrived as to how each answer plays a significance. As Jamal encounters a pistol, its wielder mentions that is is a Colt 45 for no particular reason, which later helps him know who the inventor of a revolver is. As he must answer whose face is on a $100 bill (American), we flash back to a day when Jamal is asked by a blind beggar whose face is on a bill being handed to him, proceeded by a conversation that would be awkward had the film been told in chronological order. We learn early on that Jamal, who along with his brother Salim (Mittal) call themselves Athos and Porthos, in reference to the Dumas' "Three Musketeers," can never remember the name of the third musketeer. It's not much of a stretch to guess that this will come into play later. If you know anything about "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" you know that the questions get progressively more difficult for the contestant as he or she climbs the ladder to higher stakes, and the place in the rounds in which this question is asked seems absurd.
All might have been forgiven had the story injected a feeling of fairy tale/greater elements at play. There are a few moments that seem a bit fantastic, but for the most part, Boyle doesn't ever manage to give the film a transcendent quality that truly convince us that it is Jamal's destiny to prevail other than the motif, "It is written." It's also difficult to maintain a dramatic momentum when we know, more or less, what the outcome to the film will be. If we see that Jamal is alive and well at the beginning of the film, we know he isn't going to die or come to permanent harm, save perhaps at the hands of those who might torture him into divulging how he knew all of the answers -- a story angle that itself has fully run its course in the middle of the film. If the questions are going to be delivered in the same order as the events in Jamal's life that clue him in to the answers, there has to be some sort of strange, cosmic force at work, but there isn't. The story is, at the same time, alternately credible and incredible, where a perpetual mix of both throughout would have worked in a far more effective way.
Part of me feels the need to nitpick here about the way the "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" show is presented. However, I am only familiar with the version shown on American television, and I'm unaware of the presentation in other world markets. I've already mentioned that the questions seem to not be in increasingly difficult order, and the final question seems to be, from an international trivia standpoint, to be one of the easiest. I'm also trying to recall if I've ever seen the TV show go to break after a question is asked, but before an answer is given. I can't come up with a time, but even giving the film the benefit of the doubt, it's incredible that the contestant gets to roam freely about the studio where he can stumble upon others who could presumably tip him off as to what the correct answer might be. One must feel that any show that would call for a police interrogation of a contestant prior to his actual victory, and one that is publicized in the media at the height of the contestant's popularity, would have stringent rules against cheating in the course of actual play.
Now I'm sounding like I didn't like the film, which isn't the case at all. Slumdog Millionaire is a memorable, engaging and highly efficient formula film with an exotic setting. Do I think it worthy of Best Picture? I don't, but I'm not surprised by its success. In the previous ten years, at least five of the Best Picture winners weren't even in my top five films of the year. However, Boyle's film is an experience unlike any other for the year, such that it has become its own kind of phenomenon, and definitely leaves an indelible impression through its vivid imagery and hauntingly surreal depictions of repugnant criminal elements, filthy hovels and human degradation.
©2009 Vince Leo