Monday, January 19, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire is a rare treat - a critical darling seemingly poised to sweep up the Academy Award for Best Picture that really is a legitimately great, genuinely delightful film. Okay, in all fairness, the Academy made very good selections the last two years with The Departed and No Country for Old Men, but they still have a lot of explaining to do before they're excused for Crash, apparently the greatest American film of 2005(?!!).

But Slumdog Millionaire, in stark contrast to the brutal cynicism of Departed and No Country, is a feel-good fairy tale from stem to stern (albeit one twinged with the same occasional violence and darkness as many fairy tales of old); a character study that's Charles Dickens meets City of God meets game shows with the very lightest gloss of crime story and mystery to it. If it does win Best Picture it will be a change of pace befitting this cautiously optimistic post-Obama era.

When an eighteen-year-old Indian slumdog named Jamal correctly answers his way to the final question on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? - yes, the very same sickeningly ubiquitous gameshow that went out of vogue a decade ago - he's plucked up on suspicion of cheating by a couple of cops who try to beat a confession out of him, instead getting his life story, told in flashbacks that take up the large majority of the film and explain how he had the knowledge to answer each question. It's a remarkably clever and original narrative structure.

The story of Jamal's life begins as the dark tale of living in violent, crime-ridden slums, something strongly reminiscent of City of God, but it gradually sheds its hard edge and mutates into a quixotic love story between Jamal and Latika, a lost love from his childhood. It's generic on its surface but executed with rare tenderness and emotion that, although it's not as original as the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? framing device, made Jamal and Latika form one of perhaps two or three cinematic couples from 2008 I liked well enough to genuinely root for.

The screenplay is wonderful and the actors are all very good, but it's Danny Boyle's energetic, lively direction that fills the movie with remarkable vibrance. At times the manner of shooting, American music, and rapid cutting even give it the light flavor of a music video, which I've heard some on message boards accuse of being gimmicky, but I found it superb. Award nominations for Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing are all warranted. Boyle milks the screenplay for warmth, emotion, and suspense and keeps things moving a crackling pace.

It's hard not to admire Boyle's uncommon genre versatility, tackling everything from drug cautionary tale (Trainspotting) to zombie horror (28 Days Later) to heartwarming family film (Millions) to hard science fiction (Sunshine) and now Slumdog Millionaire, his best film to date. Shred your cynicism when you see it, and don't overanalyze or take it too seriously because it is at its heart a crowd-pleasing fairy tale (for my part, the only real flaw in the film is that I thought the final game show question was laughably easy), and I think you'll find it as I did to be one of the better films of 2008.

5 Stars out of 5

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