Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, Madhur Mittal
Running Time: 121 min.
**** (out of ****)
There’s this guy I know who I tell everyone will have to be my “phone-a-friend” lifeline if I ever appear on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Talking to him it isn’t immediately obvious just how smart he is but listen long enough you realize he knows a little bit about everything and that knowledge comes not from a genius I.Q. but life experience and just simply paying attention. To say a Mensa membership is required to win that million is about as absurd as claiming Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is a movie about a game show.
When the film first started I remember thinking it wasn’t what I expected. Then, about five minutes later it was over. I say five minutes because that’s exactly what it felt like. It went by in almost a blur and when it ended I had a funny feeling. It took a little bit to realize that feeling was my pulse finally slowing down. The movie washed over me as I lost myself in a hyperkinetic story that felt like it was moving a mile a minute. The performances, the cinematography, the music and the engulfing plot structure all come together in perfect harmony to create an experience that isn’t easily forgotten. And at the center of it is a genuine and affecting love story, and one that doesn’t feel as if it were cribbed out of a screenwriting handbook.
I frequently roll my eyes when I hear an “underdog” film has been anointed an awards contender right out of the gate but the fact is that this movie is pretty much airtight and easily the best on Boyle’s directorial résumé. You may think it can’t possibly be better than Trainspotting but that film, while great, benefited mostly from being at the right place at the right time. This is more than that. While it isn’t necessarily groundbreaking it does give us one of the most intriguing premises for a movie in years and something we haven’t seen before. With a concept as promising as this one the film already had a head start, but where Boyle could have easily dropped the ball, he squeezes every last dramatic drop out of it he can.
The film tells the story of Jamal (Dev Patel) an 18-year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai who is one question away from winning 20 million rupees on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Having already racked up 10 million, the show breaks for the night a police inspector (Irfan Khan) arrests him for suspicion of cheating, refusing to believe that an uneducated street peasant could know the answers to all those questions. He tortures him into revealing how he did it as the film flashes back to show how key events in his life provided him with the correct answers. We witness his volatile relationship with hotheaded brother Salim (Madhur Mital) as well as the special bond he develops with the third member of their gang, and the girl he loves, Latika (Freida Pinto).
The flashbacks span years with three different actors playing the characters at various points, tragic circumstances eventually separating them, all leading to the moment when Jamal appears on the show. As we’re given each question we’re also given the accompanying story behind it. Questions range from “Who invented the revolver?” to “Which historical figure is on the $100 bill?” The film constantly astonishes in the way the answers show up in his life. One early question, involving a Bollywood star, has a payoff that’s both touching, disgusting and hysterical all at the same time. We know the ending and it doesn’t matter. What matters is how Jamal gets to it and that’s what kept my mouth open in amazement the entire time.
For all the praise this film has been getting over the past month Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay (based on the novel Q &A by Vikas Swarup) is actually underrated in terms of its depth. It’s smart enough to acknowledge that the questions on the show aren’t difficult and Jamal’s ability to answer them comes from just simply paying attention to what’s going on in his own life. It’s not in the slightest bit unrealistic or manipulative since many people have it in them the capacity to get to the final level of this show. The questions don’t reflect book smarts but rather everyday details we breeze by without ever paying attention to.
It isn’t a screenwriting contrivance that questions baring such a strong connection to key moments in Jamal’s life showed up. All the questions bare a strong connection to all of our lives, except the difference is we never notice or remember it. Jamal did. That’s why the police can’t fathom how he could know all the answers without cheating. They’re stuck in a mind-set that the answers are dependent on intelligence and in doing that they’ve exposed their own limited worldview, strangely confirming the very reason he’s destined to win.
The host of the show (expertly played by Bollywood veteran Anil Kapoor) is Regis Philbin re-imagined as an obnoxious, arrogant sleaze. He’s even more disbelieving of Jamal’s streak of “luck” the police and the script allows us a quiet scene with him that gives us real insight into why. The host also fails to grasp that a situation like this measures guts and resourcefulness more than brains, which is why Jamal never blinks in the face of his intimidation tactics. Compared to what else he’s dealt with in his life, its nothing. It takes a certain kind of person to maintain their composure under those circumstances and the flashbacks do more than tell us how he knew the answers. They tell us how he became that person.
All the characters are given that detailed treatment, specifically Jamal’s brother, Salim, who throughout the story is tough to really get a read on as to where his loyalty lies. At times he acts out in a jealous, violent rage while at others he’ll do anything to protect his brother. He’s rendered in both writing and performance with a wild inconsistency that can only be found in real life, not the movies. When we finally do get a read on him it’s an incredible moment and one that developed organically out of the story. Boyle handles the epic relationship and sometimes cruelly forced estrangement between Jamal and Latika as if it were a fragile keepsake. It’s always on the radar but doesn’t really explode until the film’s final 30 minutes. When it does, you realize just how important those early scenes were.
A lot of movies are released where a variety of actors have to play the same character at different ages, but I don’t think I’ve seen one that’s done it as effectively as this. I really believed those three little kids at the beginning of the film and the adults they grew to become at the end were the same people, which just bolsters its emotional resonance. The cast is comprised of mostly unknowns with the children giving revelatory performances and Patel holding his own against the more seasoned acting vets. He effectively conveys the world-weary blank slate on which the entire story is projected on.
Anyone who calls this a “feel-good movie,” drawing comparisons with Little Miss Sunshine or Juno just because the same studio released them or because this has a “happy ending” is deliberately trying to bury it. I can feel the backlash starting already and it’s sickening that some believe a film shouldn’t be permitted to deliver a life-affirming message while tackling serious issues, no matter how well it's done. Even in these tough times some still insist on suffering at the movies just to say the film ended on a down note. The question should never be whether an ending is happy or sad but rather if it logically follows the 110 minutes that preceded it. I’d challenge anyone to come up with an ending more earned or appropriate given the circumstances.
There’s even been some controversy as to whether the MPAA rated this too harshly with an “R,” with Boyle even publicly stating he was disappointed with the decision. I have no idea why. There’s no way this film should have ever been rated “PG-13” when there are scenes of genocide, a man running down the street on fire and children being tortured. Interestingly, many of the audience members I saw it with just couldn’t take it, either covering their eyes or exiting the theater entirely. It was probably misinformation about the film’s content combined with the context the scenes were presented in that caused those reactions, but the fact remains the same. This got the rating it deserved and it’s a good thing because if it didn’t the detractors would just have more ammunition to unfairly label the film as lightweight. Nothing about it is lightweight.
Boyle truly captures initial excitement we all felt when Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? first debuted in the states in 1999, reminding us that ABC really blew it when they decided to shove it down our throats 7 nights a week because they had no other original programming. They sealed its fate with overexposure, which is a shame because it was the most exciting game show that ever aired in North America. If another program were chosen to build the plot around it wouldn’t have worked. The show’s structure and questions just naturally lends itself to the cinematic story Boyle is conveying.
He also understands that many audiences don’t care for subtitles and finds a way to present them in a unique way that won’t turn us off while cinematographer Dod Mantel’s dazzling, colorful visuals perfectly accompany the energetic rush of the film, showing the slums of India in a light we’re entirely unaccustomed to. The music follows suit, specifically A.R. Rahman’s pulsating score and an unforgettable musical interlude set to M.I.A’s “Paper Planes." If you already loved the song as much as I did, you’ll love it even more after this.
We’ve reached that time of year where critics’ groups from across the country and beyond come out with their lists of 2008’s best films and a variety of cinematic achievement awards are handed it. We complain how they never seem to get it right, but how about those times when they actually do? This is practically a lock to win Best Picture in February and I’m not saying that because I feel it necessarily deserves it (I have to view all the releases this year before making that determination). What I am saying is that the voters are probably drooling all over themselves right now because this film contains all the universal themes they seem to go crazy over. Unfortunate as it is, recent tragic events will just make it all the more relevant. But I do worry massive critical and awards praise will turn people off from the film and prevent them from seeing just how smart and deep it is.
For those who claim Danny Boyle “sold out” by making a film that appeals to the mainstream I’d ask them to take a step back and see that this is the moment he’s been working toward his entire career and just be happy for him. This isn’t a Sam Raimi situation where a filmmaker abandoned the tools that brought him to the dance to court audience favor and a fat paycheck. It’s a case of a director finally finding more universally accessible material that perfectly matches his sensibilities. I always thought Boyle was solid but never considered he had a film like this in him. It takes supreme talent to make a crowd-pleaser that doesn’t succumb to manipulation or theatrics. Slumdog Millionaire is not only every bit as great as you’ve heard, it might even be a little better.