Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire (Warner Bros.) is a stylish, ingeniously constructed bit of hokum, a sparkling trinket of a movie that's as implausible as it is irresistible. As a matter of fact, this film's implausibility is exactly what makes it irresistible. In this post-globalization update of a Horatio Alger tale, all a boy needs to rise to the pinnacle of success is true love, a pure heart, and a run of luck so extreme it can only be karma.
When the film opens, Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a teenager from the slums of Mumbai, is about to win an unprecedented sum—nearly 20 million rupees—on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? This uneducated orphan, who works fetching tea for employees at a customer-service call center, seems incapable of giving a wrong answer, whether the question concerns movies, literature, cricket, or whose face appears on the American $100 bill. The show's unctuous host (Bollywood superstar Anil Kapoor) suspects fraud and arranges to have Jamal kidnapped and questioned by a local cop (Irrfan Khan).
As we learned in last year's A Mighty Heart, getting interrogated by Irrfan Khan is really not the way you want to spend your evening. After some non-Geneva Conventions-approved activities, Khan realizes that Jamal isn't lying—he really does know all this stuff. So the officer sits the boy down and goes through the tape of the game show, question by question. As Jamal recounts the moments in his life, most of them traumatic, that brought him each piece of hard-won knowledge, the movie's tricky structure reveals itself: Flashbacks of Jamal's hardscrabble childhood alternate with present-day scenes in the interrogation room and increasingly tense rounds of the televised trivia game.
In these glossy, propulsively edited flashback sequences, Jamal and his brother Salim (both played by three different actors as they age from child to adult—grown-up Salim is Madhur Mittal) lose their mother to mob violence during an anti-Muslim riot. The boys soon fall into the clutches of a loathsome entrepreneur, Maman (Ankur Vikal), who offers beggar kids food and shelter while forcing them to hand over their earnings. The brothers befriend an orphan girl, Latika (played in her adult incarnation by Freida Pinto) but lose sight of her during a terrifying escape from Maman's compound. Jamal then swears to devote the rest of his life to finding Latika—a goal that eventually, after convolutions too baroque to detail here, lands him in the hot seat on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?
Like Fernando Meirelles' City of God, Slumdog Millionaire is at times guilty of aestheticizing the poverty that it seeks to critique. (A.R. Rahman's hip-hop-influenced score and Anthony Dod Mantle's sleek cinematography don't help any.) Boyle's Mumbai is a squalid, teeming jungle of gang warfare and child exploitation, but it's also a marvel of color and music and life; there are scenes of kids scaling junk heaps that are as beautiful as a long-distance commercial. The interrogation episodes bristle with the psychological gamesmanship of The Usual Suspects, and the bits from the televised broadcast thrill like a live sports event. Boyle, co-directing with his Indian casting director, Loveleen Tandan, balances all these shifts in tone with remarkable skill. At some point near the feverish, overplotted conclusion, you start to realize how little there is to this movie: It's just boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-performs-miracle-on-live-television-in-order-to-get-girl. But by the time boy and girl perform a Bollywood-style dance number in a crowded train station, you'll be too happy to care.
Slate V: The critics' take on Quantum of Solace, Slumdog Millionaire, and A Christmas Tale: