Monday, December 15, 2008

"Slumdog Millionaire"

I realized this morning that what Danny Boyle's new film most resembles is the 2002 Brazilian slums-to-riches epic City of God, the directorial debut of The Constant Gardener and Blindness director Fernando Meirelles. Like that film, Slumdog portrays extreme poverty with both grit and arresting visual style, and a sense of humor that reflects universal truths about childhood even as it depicts children growing up in the worst conceivable conditions. The first half of the movie is harrowing, since it follows the protagonist, Jamal, his brother, Salim, and Jamal's crush, Latika, as they try to navigate the treacherous reality of the slums. (The film is set in Mumbai, which is either a strange coincidence or simply a reflection of what a turbulent place that city is.)

In his review, Anthony Lane notes that Slumdog isn't big on subtlety, but the film's conclusion -- an exuberant, Bollywood-style production number in a train station -- tells you all you need to know about why. Despite the tough-minded portions of the movie, which include torture and the intentional blinding of children (sensitive viewers, beware), this is an epic romance of the kind that India has long excelled at producing, and in that sense the film is less an Indian work than an homage to that country's cinematic sensibility.

The story feels a bit long during the film's final third, but Boyle is a master at keeping things whizzing along, even when the subject matter is grim (see 28 Days Later or Trainspotting for proof), and the flashback-intensive structure is, if not ingenious, certainly highly effective. Since Jamal eventually finds himself on India's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the movie's conceit is to reveal how he knows the answers to the show's questions, which it does via scenes from his rough-and-tumble life.

Lane observes that the script unrealistically turns Jamal's torturers into relatively civil interrogators, and the film ends on a weak note before the dance number, but the pure joy of that number excuses a multitude of sins. Best of all, Slumdog reflects Boyle's knack for striking a fine balance between grittiness and sentimentality -- and entertaining the hell out of you in the process.

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