Slumdog Millionaire opens on the precipice of a climax: Gangly 18-year-old "tea boy" Jamal (Dev Patel) sits in the crosshairs of the Indian version of the television game show Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?. He is one question away from the game's ultimate prize of 20 million rupees, and the game's producers break to let anticipation build overnight — and to investigate how an uneducated kid could have gotten so far.
"What the hell can a slum dog possibly know?" a Mumbai police interrogator asks in between actions the Bush administration would no doubt label "harsh interrogation techniques."
How Jamal, a street urchin turned low-level laborer, could have advanced so far is the mystery of the movie, and four possible explanations are offered: "lucky," "cheated," "genius," "it is written."
Back in the police office after the rough stuff has done no good, Slumdog Millionaire moves into a pleasing double-helix structure, intertwining dual flashback sequences — Jamal's hardscrabble life story and his unlikely question-by-question negotiation of the game — around his police interrogation, linking the two by showing just how Jamal came to know all the answers. (For instance, when Jamal knows the name of an Indian cinema action star, we see how, as a child, Jamal fought through excrement to get his autograph.)
There's plenty of memorable material here, as cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle follows kids through Mumbai's garbage-strewn slums, pulling up from street level to show the vastness of the jagged jumble of corrugated tin-roof shacks. This beginning to Jamal's childhood story hints at a Dickensian aspect that takes full flower when Jamal and his brother — alone on the streets after their mother is killed in an anti-Muslim raid — are scooped up by a local Fagin and taken to an orphanage of sorts that turns out to be the headquarters of a begging operation. Here, some children are blinded with hot liquid, because "blind singers earn double."
Though this makes for a memorable journey — bits like Jamal and his brother scamming Western tourists at the Taj Mahal — Slumdog always feels artificial. British director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) doesn't have a feel for this kind of crowded, destitute, modern setting, which some other contemporary filmmakers — Mira Nair in Salaam Bombay! and Monsoon Wedding, Fernando Meirelles in City of God — have brought to similar material.
Or maybe that's not what he wants. Slumdog Millionaire is essentially a Third World pop fairy tale. It reminds me a little of Kung Fu Hustle, another movie everyone loved but me. It's got a crackerjack title and an interesting premise, but the final product is not quite as lively or original as it sounds. The plotting becomes increasingly conventional as the two narrative strands move toward a dual climax, and the end result is so formulaic that it's hard to work up a suitable emotional investment.
Opening Friday, December 19th