Monday, February 2, 2009
Slumdog Millionaire is about a smart, but uneducated, kid from the slums of Mumbai, India (formerly called Bombay) who gets on the Indian version of the TV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? That may not sound like the basis for a crowd pleasing Academy Award front-runner, but that's exactly what Slumdog is. The question, of course, is whether or not it deserves the gobs of love that people (both critics and audiences alike) have been heaping onto it. My answer is both a yes and a no. It is very nearly a great movie, and I wouldn't mind anyone saying that they loved it, but I came away feeling that it could've been better. Still, the good far outweighs the bad and Slumdog Millionaire is a terrific little movie with a wonderful heart at its center.
That heart mainly belongs to Dev Patel, the actor portraying the adult version of the movie's protaganist, Jamal. We follow Jamal through three periods of his life, a life which intertwines with those of his brother Salim, and the love of Jamal's life, Latika (played as an adult by the ridiculously beautiful Freida Pinto). All three come from the slums and spend the movie trying to fight their way out. No matter what the circumstances though, Jamal does what he does because of his love of Latika. He only tries out for Millionaire because it's a wildly popular show, and having lost contact with her, he hopes she'll be watching and will find him. His unlikely success on the show is mostly because he's a bright kid with a good memory. Still, those in charge think he's cheating, and the movie is primarily told through flashbacks of the adult Jamal reliving how he learned all the answers to the questions. Jamal tells them the story of his young life, a remarkable tale including gangsters, stealing to survive, hoboing on trains, and always of trying to get back to Latika. It's this romantic core that lifts the movie up, with the emotionally affecting performances from Patel and Pinto being a big reason for its success. They both have big expressive eyes, and Patel in particular conveys Jamal's entire life in his voice and the depth of those eyes. They have wonderful chemistry with one another, and for being so young (he's just 18, she's 24) I don't think they step wrong once.
Holding the movie back though is the direction from British director Danny Boyle. He directs the movie with a certain "look at me" style that I usually associate with someone like Tony Scott (especially his stuff like Man on Fire and Domino). There's also some intelligence insulting, and obviously unnecessary, flashbacks during the climax of the story that really epitomizes Boyle's hacky direction. He just doesn't have the confidence in Simon Beaufoy's screenplay that he should've had, the kind of confidence that would allow him to get out of the way of both the story and the actors and let them win over the audience as they would've effortlessly done. But just like Paul Greengrass couldn't ruin the last two Bourne movies no matter how hard he tried, Boyle doesn't ruin Slumdog. Not to say that the screenplay is flawless. I don't think the few bits of comedy work very well, there are a couple of pieces of stupid dialog in moments that would've worked silently, and ultimately Salim is not a very interesting character and doesn't have the kind of emotional impact on the audience that Jamal and Latika have. Regardless, the biggest problems lie with the director, not the writer.
Is it the best movie of the year? Not even close. Is it a great movie? Not quite. But I won't be surprised if it wins Best Picture at this years Oscars (where it's been nominated for 10 awards), because it is a very good movie, and exactly the type of out of nowhere choice that the Academy occasionally goes for. I would actually admire the Academy for honoring an international picture such as this, one with about a third of its dialog in Hindi, and the English dialog all coming with Indian accents. Ultimately though, the thing I take most away from the movie is that I really hope we see more of Dev Patel and Freida Pinto at the movies. I think they have big bright futures ahead of them.