Truth be told, I have always been a tepid yet enthusiastic fan of Danny Boyle. Full of mixed emotions and a bipolar outlook toward the Mancunian auteur I have always felt pangs of excitement at the prospect of a new film, but never quite the all-out throat-wrangler titillation that accompanies the release of some other (equally talented I suppose) filmmakers. Trainspotting, though well done in almost every aspect, left me a bit less enthused than most and his valiant attempt at Kubrickian space psychosis, Sunshine, ended up all for naught as it were, completely done in by its ridiculous ending, yet the quasi-magical Millions had a quiet little Capraesque charm to it that made such a diminutive story seem all the more cinematic and the neozombie flick 28 Days Later may very well be the new pinnacle of the genre. So, with both trepidation and a giddy enthusiasm I entered the theatre (sold out crowd nonetheless) and plopped myself down front row center, letting the film engulf me in its garishly enticing enormousness. My mind, at least visually and audibly, done been blown.
Perhaps it is my trivia-obsessed love of the show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Maybe it's the infectious cinemasanity that is a Danny Boyle motion picture. Perhaps it's the blending of Bollywood bravura and Hollywood audacity that permeates this somewhat surprising little film. Maybe the answer is D. all of the above. Whatever the case, Slumdog Millionaire, the story of a poor Mumbai kid nearly right off the streets who wins big on the Indian version of Millionaire only to be arrested and cop-beaten for allegedly cheating, came out of a veritable nowhere and with shock and awe and a buttload of in-your-face chutzpah, nearly won this usually cynical critic head over heels over. Wanting to be The Three Musketeers meets City of God, Boyle's film is surely a sensory overload cinematic one two punch, even if it does lack where most of Boyle's films lack - its cinematic integrity.
Told as a series of flashbacks as Mumbai slumdog-cum-Millionaire contestant Jamal explains to his interrogators the hows and whys of his unusually precise knowledge (he knows obscure facts while oblivious to his own national slogan, the most famous saying in his country) the film is the story of Jamal and his always conniving older brother Salim and their rise and fall through the streets of one of the most overpopulated and treacherous cities on Earth. We see these boys growing up in a world that has no use for them and watch as they fall prey to men who would do them nothing but harm. It is the harshest of worlds where one must be willing to do anything - even kill - to survive and we are made sure to know this through a manipulative screenplay full of all the right buttons being pushed. Yet, for Boyle's obvious cliche'd action (it is quite the unique premise though) and even in spite of its obvious post-millennial slapdash cinematography (the one true constant in Boyle's oeuvre - even in his pre-millennial works, Shallow Grave and Trainspotting) Slumdog Millionaire is at its very heart, essentially an old fashioned love story. As much Lubitsch as YouTube. As much sentimental romance as jaded reality TV. As much old Hollywood as generation Y.
It is, at its chewy center, the story of Jamal's search for Latika, the love of his life and, it ends up, the very reason he is even on the TV show in the first place. Separated as children (both orphaned) Latika is bound for a life of servitude. From street urchin, begging for scraps just to make her masters happy to teen prostitute to mob girlfriend to eventual prisoner in her own wretched life. It is through Jamal's undying love for Latika, and his 10+ year search for her, that we see the seething underbelly of his and her worlds. It is through Jamal's unending quest that we come to feel for these two love lorn lovers and begin to actively root for their eventual reunion away from everything and everyone that can do them harm. Whether they find that island of utopia or not, one must watch this stunning film for themselves. Though perhaps a bit overly sentimental for some (there are moments of pure saturation withing Boyle's frenzied walls) most will not be disappointed. And remember, though English, Boyle's film is an ode to Bollywood in many ways (including the casting of Bollywood legend Anil Kapoor as the quite pompous game show host) so it should come as no surprise when the closing credits are done against the backdrop of a typically buoyant Bollywood-style song-and-dance number. The moral being, and this is sooo wonderfully Indian, even in a story so filled to the brim with death, despair and desperation, we must dance to life. Perhaps it is strongly manipulative filmmaking (indeed, what Boyle does best) but at least there is a sense of cinematic joy to be had. [12/09/08]