Thursday, January 22, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire is an overwhelming tour de force, featuring more emotional ups and downs than most of 2008’s movies combined. It’s also better than most of 2008’s movies, and 2008 was hardly a weak year. I went into Slumdog Millionaire completely cold, having no knowledge of its cast, crew, or premise (something I rarely do), and was completely swept away on the wave of its narrative power. Combining the rawness of City of God (2002) with the exuberance of Bollywood, Slumdog Millionaire is a complete triumph.

Eighteen year-old Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is one question away from winning 20 million rupees on the Indian version of “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?.” When the show breaks for the night, the police arrest Jamal on suspicion of cheating; how could a nobody from the slums of Mumbai possibly know so much? As the Police Inspector (Irrfan Khan) interrogates Jamal, we see through flashbacks how the tragedies of his life equipped him with the knowledge necessary to succeed. We follow Jamal across his life-long journey of running from his enemies, struggling with his gangster brother, and searching for his lost love, Latika (Freida Pinto).

The film’s final half hour contains the highest highs, and the first half hour contains the lowest lows. Many scenes of Jamal’s life in the slums are hard to watch, but far too compelling to turn away from. Brace yourself for a rough beginning (scenes of children in peril are especially hard), but know that every moment has purpose. I recognize that real life for most people in Mumbai rarely becomes as tragic or as ecstatic as Jamal’s life, but this is hardly a documentary of life in India; it’s a dark fantasy about the power of love and hope. While the two movies have little else in common, The Shawshank Redemption has a similar mix of light and dark, where both parts are equally necessary to the overall experience.

The cast is comprised mostly of unknowns, and child actors carry the portions with the most emotional weight. The performances are so good, especially from the children, that it’s easy to lose the “Don’t worry, it’s just a movie” effect, making the whole experience all the more exhausting. The emotion comes not just from the events themselves, but in the characters’ understated reactions. The performances aren’t especially energetic or raw, so much as genuine. The characters’ eyes project the fatigued poker faces of people who have experienced far too much, far too soon.

Watching Jamal sit in the Millionaire “hot seat” answering questions, I wondered when the last time was that I so badly wanted a movie character to succeed. Along with everyone else in the theater (judging from the unanimous gasps and bated breath), I needed him to succeed. Danny Boyle’s film taps into that inspirational, essentially human vein; you know the one I mean. I have a feeling you’ll drive home from Slumdog Millionaire using the same lifeline I did: “Phone a Friend.”

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language.

Slumdog Millionaire is a movie for adults. Don’t be misled by the overwhelmingly positive feedback about how inspirational it is - this film contains very raw, very upsetting depictions of life in the slums. Preteens should stay away, and everyone else should be prepared for a heavy, albeit powerful, experience.

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