Sunday, November 30, 2008

You're The Man Now, Dog! Arturo v. Slumdog Millionaire!

You could say Slumdog Millionaire is too cute by half. But you can't say it doesn't do cute very well.

Adapted from the novel Q and A, Slumdog follows "uneducated" street kid Jamal (Dev Patel) through a Dickensian collision of money, love, poverty and hope against all odds. It's the kind of fairy tale Hollywood can't do without tripping over its' own commercialism anymore, but the relentless pace set by Simon Beaufoy's screenplay and the direction of Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan sacrifices schmaltz, for the most part – and most importantly, keeps you rooting for this most improbable (implausible?) hero.

We meet Jamal, a perpetually wide-eyed call-center drone, in the midst of a brutally foreful questioning by Mumbai police. The kid has been doing well as a contestant on Kaun Banega Crorepati, the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? -- too well for comfort, in fact. How could this urchin, this upstart, people are asking, be on the verge of winning the grand prize of 20 million Rupees when doctors and lawyers have fallen short?

"Because I'm a Slumdog, I'm a liar, right?" Jamal asks the cops. But the truth is, Jamal's an anomaly. The answer -- or rather, the answers -- are within him. Boyle and Tandan line up the parallel paths of Jamal's rise: each right answer ties in to the different flashpoints in the hard-knock lives of Jamal and his conflicted older brother Salim (Madhur Mittal). The boys have, at various points, been orphans, hustlers, "Musketeers," travelers, until they finally take different paths. The only other constant in Jamal's life, besides making enough to get by, is the love of his life, Latika (Freida Pinto). Indeed, the only times mild-mannered Jamal gets riled up is when somebody crosses his girl.

The film's single-mindedness brings to mind Forrest Gump -- and that's potentially as bad as it is good. We get glimpses of the abject poverty the kids face (the scenes in the "orphanage" are particularly harrowing) but Jamal's focus on saving Latika (who herself seems to avoid the worst possible fates before running into Jamal again) dulls some of the impact of seeing what Jamal has overcome along the way. It's easy to see why other reviews have panned the film for being "picaresque" and "cinematic overkill."

But, in a time where Mumbai is in the news for all the wrong reasons, and on the verge of the annual winter barrage of cinematic and economic gluttony, Slumdog is, like its' hero, an anomaly: a "feel-good" movie that actually delivers on the sentiment. And you can say about that what you will.

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