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Review: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Directed by: Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan

Premise: Jamal (Dev Patel) gets on the Indian version of the TV game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” in an attempt to win the money he needs to buy a new life for himself and the woman he loves (Freida Pinto). The story cuts between his time on the show, an interrogation by authorities who believe he has cheated, and flashbacks to his childhood in Mumbai where he encounters the answers to the questions on the show. 

What Works: Slumdog Millionaire is a romantic fairy tale told in with style, characters, and locations that disguise its conventions and make it a fresh and unique film. The storyline of Slumdog Millionaire is broken into three temporal sections and uses different actors for the three lead characters in each section. Very impressively, the film manages to transition between the three sections and the nine actors and do it seamlessly. The picture takes place over the course of about ten years, jumping in and out of the timeline, but it is edited together so well that it is always clear exactly where the characters are in their lives and what is happening. The story has equal parts tragedy and comedy and it slides easily between the two extremes while depicting the difficult life of Jamal and his older brother Samil growing up in the slums of Mumbai. The economy of storytelling in Slumdog Millionaire is very impressive as each scene accomplishes multiple goals, developing the love story between Jamal and Latika, increasing the tension between Jamal and Samil, and describing how Jamal knows the answers to the questions on the game show. Broken down linearly to its most basic components, the story of Slumdog Millionaire follows that of a prince who has to save his love from a dragon in a tower, but the way that this story has been told brings lots of new and fresh perspectives to that story and its performers add a lot of humor and humanity to the film. As the adult Jamal, actor Dev Patel brings dignity and sensitivity to a role that might otherwise be buried by sentimentality or ruined with too much sarcasm or machismo. Instead, the film allows Jamal humor, intelligence, and earnestness that makes him a great character. The other standout performance in the film is Madhur Mittal as the adult Samil. The character is very much the moral opposite of Jamal as he is corrupted by life on the street, but the picture’s theme of hope penetrates the dark life of the character and gives him a shot at redemption. Like last year’s The Kite Runner, Slumdog Millionaire is a truly international film, including dual directors (one British and the other Indian), a cast of Indians, and a story that synthesizes the Horatio Alger themes of Hollywood, the sound and energy of Bollywood, and the edginess usually reserved for independent cinema. In an age where films are being viewed by increasingly diverse audiences, this multicultural combination is a vision of what the future of cinema could be, and if it is, the future looks very bright. 

What Doesn’t: The only flaws of Slumdog Millionaire occur where it stretches credibility. The film addresses the main issue–how this uneducated boy knows all of these obscure facts–in its structure, but the unlikely reunion of Jamal and Latika is a leap only possible in a love story based on destiny. This theme underlies the movie from the very beginning but it is quite a stretch when thinking about the film intellectually. 

Bottom Line: Slumdog Millionaire is a beautiful film even when it dwells on very ugly subject matter. The humor, humanity, and optimism of the piece are hard to resist, even for a cynic.

Episode: #224 (January 25, 2009)