Friday, November 5, 2010

"Slumdog Millionaire" (2008)

Starring Dev Patel, Freida Pinto and Madhur Mittal
Written by Simon Beaufoy
Directed by Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan

"Slumdog Millionaire" charts the lives of two brothers, Jamal and Salim Malik (Dev Patel and Madhur Mittal, when grown) who grew up together in the slums of Bombay, India.  Jamal is a contestant on India's version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?", hosted by the charismatic Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor).  After winning an unprecedented sum of money on the show, Jamal is arrested and charged with fraud.  He's accused of cheating, and in his defense, he begins to tell the police the story of his life, explaining how he knew each of the answers without ever having gone to school.

After their mother is killed in a riot, Jamal and Salim meat Latika (Freida Pinto, when grown) and the three form a sort of "three musketeers" group.  They fall in with a gangster named Maman (Ankur Vikal), who they think will help them become rich and famous.  When they discover otherwise, the group tries to split.  Jamal and Salim manage to escape, but Latika is captured.  Jamal and Salim take off on their own, committing petty crimes and schemes to get money, food and clothes.

Years later, the boys return.  Jamal's plan is to find Latika and reunite the group.  They discover that Maman has Latika and is planning on selling her as a prostitute, her virginity bringing a high price.  The boys manage to rescue her, but things take a dark turn: Salim pulls a gun and kills Maman.  Later, he finds Maman's chief competitor, Javed (Mahesh Manjrekar) and gets a job as an enforcer.  Emboldened, Salim returns to the abandoned hotel where Jamal and Latika are hiding.  He throws Jamal out, and keeps Latika for himself.

Yet more years later, Jamal is now a tea-server at an Indian call center.  When he finally manages to find Salim and Latika once more, he discovers that they're still stuck with Javed.  Salim is now a senior enforcer, and Latika practically a prisoner.  Jamal tries to convince her to run away with him, but Latika is recaptured by Salim and Javed's men.  Jamal becomes a contestant on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in order to get Latika's attention, hoping that she'll be able to get away and find him.

I'm always kind of wary when something is marketed as "the feel-good movie of the year" or some such.  I think I had extra reason to be concerned about "Slumdog Millionaire" when I saw that "of the year" had been replaced with "of the decade."  Talk about a tall order. 

"Slumdog" certainly is "feel-good," but what about looking at it objectively as a movie?  There are two ways that a movie gets you to feel a certain way: to manipulate the viewer or to trust the viewer.  Possibly one of the finest examples of the former that I've ever seen is Michael Bay's "Armageddon," which is chock-full of cheap, manipulative drama... and yet is wholly effective.  "Slumdog" thankfully falls into the latter category, which presents its story and its characters and allows the viewer to become attached to them on their own.

But this is also one of the problem's with "Slumdog."  Sure, it feels good, but it struggles to find a balance between being a drama and a fairy tale.  There are mythic concepts at work here, but "Slumdog" also tries to present a gritty, dirty and realistic world.  These two things don't often match up, and the film wavers back and forth, setting different tones.  While the final climax of the film is enthralling, it seems to come to a bit of a whimper at just the right second - the things we're seeing on screen seem at odds with what we know they're supposed to mean. 

The film also has trouble developing its characters, letting them be at the will of the plot, or perhaps the film's running time.  Latika, for example, is attractive, but has barely any screentime to develop as a personality.  Jamal obviously loves her, but we're just asked to accept this rather than given any reason as to why he should.  Similarly, Salim doesn't have much reason to act the way he does at times.  His ultimate fate is simple and predictable, and the film seems to know what it needs to give us in order to make us care, and yet, this scene feels tiny and insignificant, as though the film itself doesn't care and simply wanted to get it out of the way so it could move on to other things. 

Still, while I might have noticed these issues with "Slumdog Millionaire," it's hard to say that the movie isn't enjoyable, even quite good.  The screenplay is full of clever little moments and well-directed sequences, and great performances from its actors.  The whole thing is entertaining, I just can't help but think that it could, and should, have been even more so.  It's a little strange to describe - I buy into Jamal's love for Latika, even if it isn't particularly well developed or justified.  For that, I have to give credit to the actors.  Without their ability to sell it, "Slumdog" probably would've fallen flat on its face.

There's a lot of fun to be had here, and it is a "feel-good" movie.  Whether or not you think it's the "feel-good movie of the decade," I leave that up to you.  I'd certainly watch this movie again, but I'm not sure it's worthy of some of the praise I've seen heaped upon it, especially the Best Picture Oscar.