Slumdog Millionaire **1/2
Directed by Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan
Written by Simon Beaufoy, based on the novel "Q&A" by Vikas Swarup
Dev Patel as Jamal Malik
Anil Kapoor as Prem Kumar
Saurabh Shukla as Sergeant Srinkivas
Freida Pinto as Latika
Irrfan Khan as Police Inspector
Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail as Young Salim
Ayush Mahesh Khedekar as Young Jamal
Rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language.
Here we have "Slumdog Millionaire," which is cited as one of the best films of this, or any, year. It's been on numerous top ten lists, been nominated for several various awards spanning from best picture to best director to even a few best actors. It won the People's Choice award at the Toronto Film Festival. It's been making tons of money considering its modest release plan that Fox Searchlight has planned for it. So it was with all of that backage behind it that I sat down to finally see it six weeks into its release. And while I did certainly enjoy the film, I only liked it within certain parameters, and its glaring faults were far too many to find it one of "the most important films of the decade" or even one of the best of the year.
"Slumdog Millionaire" tells the story of Jamal Malik, who, at the very beginning of the film, is one question away from winning twenty million rupees on an Indian version of "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?" However the show breaks for the night before he can get it, and on his way out of the studio he is assaulted by two officers who bring him in for questioning. He is accused of cheating, because after all, what type of middle class boy is able to answer all of these questions when typical doctors and lawyers can hardly get to the halfway mark. And so Jamal begins to tell his story, including him and his brother Salim's escape, as orphans, after a massive massacre in their village which lead to the death of their mother. They befriend another orphan, the girl Latika, and escape the brutal orphanage led by Maman, who force them to work as beggars. They do escape without Latika, and this has a huge impact on the teenage Jamal who often wonders what happened to her. Years later, he figures out how Latika and the older Salim work for Javed, a powerful and ruthless crime boss, and he attempts to try and find a way to get his beloved back.
With a story that can remind one of something out of Charles Dickens-complete with orphans and beggers and criminals-"Slumdog Millionaire" certainly is an entertaining film in its storytelling capabilities. But the film's screenplay works in a comfort zone that is far too pat and convenient for my taste. First of all, the main performance by Dev Patal was somewhat wooden emotionless, and the eventually love story before him and Latika was just not something I cared about all too much. The plot device for the whole story, a somewhat clever one in some respects, also works in this convenience. As the police inspector replays the questions for Jamal, he explains, through his story, how he knew the answer. After the first two or three questions, with the audience recognition of certain events in his story compared to the question, it is clever and engaging, but after a while I could not get past the concidence of the whole story. The third act works mostly on concidence, and during the climax, instead of being swept away in the film and the story I was somewhat rolling my eyes at the obviousness of it all. The film uses the theme of "destiny" to attempt to cure the script of its cliched faults, but that in itself seems like a cheap attempt to salvage itself from the critics and audiences. And it worked.
That last paragraph seemingly rips apart the film, but I wouldn't want anyone to get the wrong idea. There is plenty in the film left for me to admire, and I really find the most fault at the screenplay, which is also getting several accolades. I enjoyed the first two acts of the film, the stuff with the younger Jamal and Salim provides several laughs and fun and carefree moments. Probably two of the best child performances of the year after "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" or "The Fall." This is very much a Danny Boyle film, complete with him fast editing and shaking camera, and it does work here. I believe Boyle is much better working with children, as he also did a great job behind the camera of "Millions," in my opinion a vastly superior film that does almost everything right.
Boyle is a good director, but certainly not on the untouchable pedastal that he seems to be regarded by many. Sometimes, as the case with "Sunshine," another film where I found fault in the screenplay, I enjoyed his ambition and direction more than the final product itself. Boyle's vision for the third act is also better than the script deserves, and the editing from the Millionaire show to the outside world creates plenty of tension, which is also what watching that show is all about. And the cinematography is practically breathtaking, creating a wonderful comparison between the innocent and buoyant colors of the first half (after all, this portion is told through the eyes of a child) and the more stark realism and violence of the second half (as the characters become less innocent and carefree).
I just could not get past the cookie cutter third act which wraps up everything far too nicely, and a Bollywood dance during the end credits just seemed like a bit too much and did not fit with the tone of the film at all. I could not bring myself to care about this love story as apparantly most film goers have. "Slumdog Millionaire" has aspects to admire, but probably takes my vote as the most overrated film of the year-a film that works with too many obvious "crowd pleasing" elements for me to find special and I did not find much to celebrate with it.