' Cinema Romantico: Slumdog Millionaire

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

Director Danny Boyle poses a multiple choice question with title cards to open his latest opus: How did Jamal Malik win 20 million rupees on India's "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" It's because he was lucky, a genius, he cheated, or because it was written. The film's relentless brightness in the face of its relentless darkness paves the way for some high-wire ridiculousness and incredible gaps of logic and that's why the film's opening doubles as its niftiest trick. The ladies sitting next to me in the sold-out theater kept prefacing whispered sentences to each other with the word "Why". As in, "Why did that happen?" "Why would she do that?" "Why wouldn't he do this?" And every time one asked the other something I just wanted to bellow, "'Cuz, ladies, it's written."

This a movie with a Johnny Cash drumbeat for narrative drive and once it gets going it won't stop. It is Shakespearean in scope. It spans a couple decades with three different actors portraying each of our three leads and involves muck and grime and beauty and hope and exotic locales and guns and knives and death and comedy and innocence and corruption and characters who aren't good and evil but GOOD and EVIL and massive, heaping piles of coincidence and a hero who is established very early as willing to go to the most horrific of depths (literally, people - literally!) to get what he wants.

As the movie opens our hero, Jamal (played at his oldest by Kev Patel), is in the hot seat on the game show and only a single question away from earning the ultimate prize. Except it seems certain people affiliated with the program (like the host who helps re-prove the fact that all gameshow hosts would best serve the world by hurling themselves into alligator pits) don't necessarily believe a "slumdog", a guy making a living by serving tea to call center employees, could really possess such intelligence, most especially when such serious bank is on the line. When the show ends for the day with the last question still hanging Jamal is escorted backstage where a bag is promptly thrown over his head and he is tortured in an effort to give up his secrets. He insists he has none and a detective (Irrfan Khan) takes him to another room where he pops in a tape of the episode and demands Jamal tell him how he knew the answer to each question. This interrogation cleverly provides the movie its structure, as each response given by Jamal triggers a flashback that allows the story of Jamal and his older brother Salim to unfold.

The boys lose their mother at far too early an age and soon we are introduced to the "third musketeer" (note: I didn't use that reference for no good reason), the sublime Latika, also an orphan, who will quickly become the love of Jamal's life even if the fates continually conspire to keep them apart for no good reason. Despite this ramshackle upbringing, Jamal's heart stays good. Unfortunately, Salim's heart turns bad. Good Brother/Bad Brother and, of course, Love Interest Who Remains Pure Despite Being Caught Up In Bad.

That's sorta' the thing, after the beginning - when the boys and Latika are acting out of desperation - the screenplay does not really bother to provide them with basic motivations. The most blatant example of this comes after Jamal and Salim fall in line with a no-good-man who lures children to a camp with kindness, sends them out on the streets to beg and then takes their earnings. The brothers are able to escape and hop a train only to, as they must, get thrown from it, wind up in the dirt on the right side of the tracks to allow the train to barrel past and reveal, sitting gloriously and ever so conveniently to the left, the Taj Mahal! Thank the heavens! This allows the brothers not only a clever opportunity for a money-making venture but a visually sumptuous setting where they can do it! Bonus!

And if Jamal is searching the crowded, frenetic Mumbai streets for Latika don't presume he won't happen upon someone he happens to know who, as it happens, is capable of providing her exact whereabouts!

The arc, too, for all three characters is fairly traditional but, I must admit, these thoughts I'm whining about all came to the forefront after the movie was finished. Like I said, it's Shakespearean. When you're watching "Romeo & Juliet" you're not shaking your head at the myriad of coincidences because you're caught up in the prose. It's why Danny Boyle fills "Slumdog Millionaire" with a pulsing soundtrack and a, shall we say, whirling dervish of a camera. It's why the closing credits include a Bollywood dance number, so that you don't start questioning things until you get out of the theater. The whole movie is "steady like a train, sharp like a razor."

I'm not sure the movie itself deserves a Best Picture nomination, as some have claimed, but I'm damn certain Danny Boyle deserves a nod for Best Director. He made me believe.

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