Slumdog Millionaire, which is based on the novel Q&A by Indian diplomat/novelist Vikas Swarup, could very well be the closest thing genre-hopping director Danny Boyle ever makes to a crowd-pleaser. It won the coveted Audience Award at this year's Toronto Film Festival and comes pre-packaged with glowing reviews from both Roger Ebert and Variety's Todd McCarthy. Written by the English screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, who many may know as the scribe behind The Full Monty, Boyle has blended this romantic fable with his own, frenetic style and some nods towards a Bollywood aesthetic in order to create the Scottish filmmaker's most accessible work to date.
On the other hand, few of Boyle's images are as instantly tasteless yet characteristic as a young Indian boy jumping into a swamp of feces in order to secure an autograph from Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan. The boy running around covered in excrement, some of which is his own, is young Jamal (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar). Moments after that presentation, Jamal and his older brother Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail) become orphaned when their mother is murdered for being a Muslim. The two boys take up with another young orphan Latika (RUBINA ALI) and join up under Maman, the Fagin of this revisionist Oliver Twist. Salim saves Jamal from being blinded by Maman and the duo make off in the night, leaving Latika to fend for herself.
The Oliver similarities hit a peak when older Jamal(Tanay Hermant Chheda) and Salim (Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala) begin pickpocketing tourists at the Taj Mahal. Salim gravitates towards a popular gang leader, for whom he murders Maman, after which he banishes Jamal and takes Latika as his prize. Years later, Jamal (now played by Dev Patel) hunts down Salim (Madhur Mittal) through his job as a chai boy at a telemarketing agency. A senior trigger man for the gang he initially ran with, Salim has offered Latika (Freido Pinto) to his boss and suggests Jamal forget about her. This, of course, puts Jamal on a course to win back Latika, the love of his life.
The film gets its title from the structuring mechanism of Jamal on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, with the sleazy Prem (Indian movie icon Anil Koopar) in for Regis Philbin. The timeline plays hopscotch, bouncing from the game show to flashbacks to flash-forwards of Jamal being questioned by a police inspector (the great Irrfan Khan, criminally underused) for allegedly cheating on the show. It's a mad dash, and the energy often disguises the fact that this is a worn-thin narrative arc. Edited for momentum rather than consistency, the seductive aura of India, so beautifully captured last year in Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited and Mira Nair's The Namesake, is rendered a blur of epileptic neon and swirling, loose-limbed action in an attempt to present the slums as alien terrain.
Since when has sheer energy been reason enough for critical praise? Boyle has proven himself able at mixing his style with several genres thus far, but here, his bold color schemes and hyperactive camera finds scraps for a story, and the buzzing production drowns out Beaufoy's structurally-intriguing script. Life-affirming and brazenly romantic, this rags-to-riches tale is, for better or worse, built for comfort, and Boyle, with co-director Loveleen Tandan, keeps things moving at all times; For all its flaws, Slumdog is not, by any means, boring. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantel, who has done some excellent work with Lars Von Trier and with Boyle on 28 Days Later, at least shoots the slums of India in a buoyant rush.
Boyle's most popular works are fitted with a contrast between narrative arc and a singular musical agent. What would Trainspotting's opening motor-mouthed salvo be without Iggy Pop howling over it? Slumdog's central montage is galvanized by M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" and it dutifully averts a lag in action as Salim and Jamal panhandle on the train away from Maman. The scene is endemic of the film's chief defect: As the flash and burn of Boyle's imagery loses its sugar high, the limp proposition that it's covering up becomes more and more evident.
He's got a lust for trivia.