Sunday, December 14, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

With each passing film, Danny Boyle becomes more and more one of my favorite directors. I know, I said the same thing about Guillermo del Toro in my review of Hellboy II, but I'm saying it again for different reasons. Sure, Boyle's visual style is one of the things I love about his films, but with films like Trainspotting, Millions, and now Slumdog Millionaire, his films offer the viewer a window to a world they might otherwise have never considered.

Before, his films showed us a slightly skewed vision of the UK. His latest, Slumdog Millionaire, shows us a side of India that the news simply cannot provide. The plot itself is deceptively simple. Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), an 18 year-old tea runner goes on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? With each passing question, the film flashes back to an event from Jamal's childhood that explains why he knows each given answer. Through these series of flashbacks, we see the story of Jamal's life, escaping the slums of Mumbai with his brother Salim and a girl named Latika, and we see each of them climb the social ladder, and the perils along the way.

There's certainly more to it than that, but explaining any more would spoil just how ingenious the storytelling at work here is. Imagine if Citizen Kane had been about Charles Foster Kane at the age of 18, and you get an idea of the kind of multiple plots at work here. And in some ways, it's a little more complex. Of course, the film never gets bogged down in complicated cross-cutting or confusing sequences. The first five minutes or so are a little disorienting, but once you get into the flow of the story, everything makes perfect sense. It's a credit to Boyle and editor Chris Dickens that the segmented story flows as well as it does. Slumdog is a marvel of narrative storytelling, but that's not the only trick up its sleeve.

The other crucial element that the film gets absolutely right is in its casting. Each of the three main characters (Jamal, Salim, and Latika) are portrayed by three different actors. We see them as children, as adolescents, and finally as young adults. Each character's three actors do very well for their parts. But, of course, the lion's share of the praise has to go to Dev Patel, who plays Jamal as he appears on the game show. His understated, honest performance makes Jamal just that much more likable.

There are few films this year with the kind of amazing narrative drive that Slumdog Millionaire presents. And while the film at times seems bound and determined to get from point A to point B at all costs, it never forgets to keep the viewer in the loop. Boyle's film is one that not only embraces global phenomena, but also displays a keen eye for local Indian flavors. Jamal's journey is a fascinating one, and one that proves to be one of the most inspirational of the decade. I can't recommend this film strongly enough, and hope it gets its due come Oscar-time. Make no mistake, this is one of the very best of the year.

4.5 (****1/2) out of five.

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