OK, now we’re talking. After a long dry spell and a lot of good-not-great movies, I’ve seen a batch of films in the past few weeks that boost 2008’s quality level substantially. And my favorite of all these movies — indeed my favorite of the year so far — is Slumdog Millionaire.
A strange mix of Rocky, Quiz Show and City of God, Slumdog Millionaire is simultaneously like a thousand films before it and like nothing I’ve seen before. That freshness is due to director Danny Boyle’s visceral camerawork and editing as well as the film’s setting in the slums of India. I’ve seen plenty of rags-to-riches stories, and plenty of tales about love defeating the odds, but none that painted such a vivid portrait of hope amidst squalor.
(Minor spoilers follow)
The film has a clever structure, following young Jamal Malik’s improbable rise on India’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? by flashing back to the life lessons that prepared him for each answer. The show’s host and executive producer is suspicious of Jamal and sends him off for a Cheney-esque interrogation between tapings. I hope this is a flight of fancy by the filmmakers… I’d hate to think India has taken the game show to such extremes, or that Regis Philbin regularly sent contestants away to be tortured.
It’s funny how the over-the-top drama inherent in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? works as a supplement to the fairy tale melodrama of Jamal’s tale. His story is equally gripping when he’s robbing people on a moving train or deciding between answer B or D for a quarter million rupees. And the script makes excellent dramatic use of the three lifelines. The game show framing, which could easily turn into a gimmick, winds up one of the film’s strongest elements.
The acting is strong all around, with particular kudos to Dev Patel as Jamal (though he shares the role with two talented young actors) and Anil Kapoor as the show’s alternately benevolent and sinister host. According to IMDB, this is Patel’s first film role, while Kapoor has been in more than a hundred films over the last 25 years. What a fascinating pair to face off.
Finally, let me go on record saying every film should end with an extended dance routine performed by principal cast members.
Warning: Major spoilers contained in the comment section.