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Slumdog Millionaire

Poverty, pluck, crime, luck and love are a-swirl in this dramedy set amid the rags and riches of India

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Final answer?: Dev Patel and Anil Kapoor
  • Final answer?: Dev Patel and Anil Kapoor

The best way to make the slums of India interesting to the 18-to-24 demographic is to hire Danny Boyle to direct a movie about them, and then to make sure he directs it like a Danny Boyle movie.

Slumdog Millionaire is loud, fast, brutal, kinetic and IN YOUR FACE! The first half is too good even for a hack like Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) to ruin, and much of the second half is too ill-conceived for anyone but a serious filmmaker -- which Boyle isn't -- to salvage. But it's certainly entertaining, especially when we stop having to look at all those mutilated street people.

The premise is both simple and, despite itself, an allegory about karma. Jamal is 18, a gopher at an outsourced phone-bank operation in Mumbai, and when we meet him, he's one question away from winning 20 million rupees (about $425,000) on the Indian-TV version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. He's had an incredible run -- and the authorities want to know how. So as we watch Jamal (Dev Patel) face his final question on his second day on the show, we also see how he spent the night between broadcasts: in police custody, being tortured into admitting he cheated.

He didn't, and by morning, his interrogator believes him. Jamal tells the cop the true story of his life growing up with his brother on the streets, and how certain horrible and tragic twists of fate led him to learn things that -- here's the karma part -- popped up as questions on the show. The boys call themselves Athos and Porthos, and Jamal asks Latika, an orphan girl, to become their Aramis. Fate separates and reunites the trio time after time, and then one final time as Jamal answers his 20-million-rupee question.

This could have been a much simpler, leaner tale, except that the only lean things in a Danny Boyle movie are gun barrels and heroin addicts. The early images of poverty are strong, and when a Fagan-esque benefactor takes the brothers in, we witness the mechanism of pure evil (He blinds children with acid so they can become pitiable beggars for his operation.) The first part of the movie includes much Hindi dialogue, and to keep it from seeming too foreign, Boyle puts the subtitles anywhere but at the bottom of the screen, and on colored rectangular backgrounds, like the narrative in a graphic novel.

Slumdog Millionaire has nothing to teach or prove after its first hour. It only needs to please its audience, which takes another hour, apparently the length of time necessary to make us forget the sight of an Indian outhouse. The premise of its story tricks us into learning a little about some of the world's poorest people while watching a plucky kid win a fortune. It's a big spoonful of sugar, and I suspect its message will finally be lost on its core audience of cinematic junk-food junkies.

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