Sunday, December 7, 2008
“Slumdog Millionaire” is being pitched as an uplifting film, a real feel-gooder, and it certainly qualifies as such. But a film as rich and varied as this cannot be so neatly summarized. “Slumdog” is a vibrant journey that shows you a world you’ve likely never seen before and makes you a part of it; at some point Jamal’s life becomes ours, and the biggest shock of the film is when it comes to an end and you must return to your real life.
The film opens on Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), an 18-year old contestant on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” being tortured and interrogated by police under suspicion of cheating. The fuzz believes that the uneducated, slumdog Malik, who is one question away from winning the grand prize, cannot possibly know the answers to questions designed to stump doctors and professors. We then cut between flashbacks of Jamal’s youth and how they influence his answers on the show.
And that is all I will say of the plot. The less you know, the more shocking the events of his life are. For a film billed so strongly as a light romantic film, it contains a great deal of the open horrors of growing up in the slums of a major city. Danny Boyle’s depiction of India is the most honest I have seen: it does not gloss over the cities to capture only their classic beauty. Instead, it delves deep into the slums, into the areas that always seem to be under construction, into rivers actually filled with waste instead of sparkling clear. Boyle’s portrayal calls to mind the New York of Scorsese’s films, or the Rio de Janeiro we saw in Fernando Meirelles’ “City of God:” fetid wastelands that are both terrifying and oddly beautiful. Like a combination of those films and the work of Steven Spielberg, "Slumdog" miraculously manages to script an uplifting piece of escapism without ever portraying the slum life as easy or driving a wedge between the horrors of Jamal's past with the hope of his present and future.
A lot of people deserve credit for making “Slumdog” such a wonderful experience. Anthony Dod Mantle’s epic cinematography and Chris Dickens’ fast-paced yet never confusing editing elevate Boyle’s stunning direction, while the actors (some of whom make their debuts here) are stunning and real. Particular attention must also be paid to Simon Beaufoy’s adapted screenplay, which updates the classic Dickensian fairy tale of orphaned, streetwise children who hope for something more into something more energetic than we’ve ever seen.
“Slumdog Millionaire” is what I hope to see every time I go to the movies for the sole purpose of escapism; it sucks me into its world and almost makes me sad when the credits roll and eject me back into reality. It is one of those rare films that seems to get everything right, or at least everything that it applies itself toward (I cannot say that there is any point to the film, but its lack of intellectual posturing works in its favor). It propels itself with such force that you cannot take your eyes off it, nor would you ever want to. The intricacies of Jamal’s life are spectacular but, as one character puts it, “bizarrely plausible,” and the final moments of the game show are nail-biting even though you know how this fairy tale must end.
Danny Boyle has already proven himself an unpredictable and varied director: he has made thoughtful science fiction (“Sunshine”), horror (“28 Days Later”), children’s films (“Millions”), and even a pitch-black comedy about drug addiction (“Trainspotting”). But it is “Slumdog Millionaire” that will cement his name in the list of notable directors, one who can take any genre you can think of and make a great addition to it. This film is an aesthetic jumble, a freewheeling, orgiastic of techniques that don't necessarily work together but add up to something memorable and hugely entertaining. It may not be the best film of 2008, but I'll cherish this Spielbergian romp as much as the year's most demanding and interesting works.
Labels: Danny Boyle