Danny Boyle's life-affirming Slumdog Millionaire not only has the power to awaken your heart in the same way, but it has healthy doses of intelligence and style to boot. You can call it a modern-day fairy tale or a touching romantic comedy or a thrilling action-adventure or a tender coming-of-age drama. I'm calling it the best movie I've seen so far in 2008 - and it's not even close.
Boyle has a tendency to evoke these polarizing, effusive reactions to his films. People loved Trainspotting. They hated The Beach. They loved 28 Days Later and Millions, but just last year they hated Sunshine. And now, as the pattern continues, they love Slumdog Millionaire. Chart the critical response to his films over his career and you have what resembles an EKG reading.
In fact Boyle's films might very well be appropriate to use in cardiology research, because while watching them your heart has to pump twice as much blood to keep up with your sensory processes. In Slumdog Millionaire, your ears are put to work as you distinguish the different accents and languages from the bustling urban noises from the thumping soundtrack songs. Your skin perspires as your muscles reflexively contract and relax between adrenaline bursts. You might not taste anything, but it can sure feel like you're smelling something (one scene in particular will have you holding your nose). And your eyes? Your eyes just soak it all in, unsure of where reality ends and fantasy begins. Slumdog Millionaire is the most visually arresting movie of the year next to The Fall (their vibrancy is not their only shared trait), and it shows that Danny Boyle is an artist unafraid to paint the canvas of film with daring brushstrokes of color and light which, in the hands of the another director, would simply come off as pretentious.
But is there substance behind all of that style? Loads of it, actually. Based on a novel by Vikas Swarup and told in a series of colorful flashbacks, Slumdog Millionaire tells the life story of Jamal Malik (newcomer Dev Patel, whose puppy-dog face reminded me of a young David Schwimmer), a mature 18 year-old from the slums of Mumbai who is one question away from winning unimaginable fortune on the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?". Convinced that no uneducated "slumdog" could advance to the last question of the game, the show's host arranges for a local police officer (Irfan Khan, The Namesake) to interrogate Jamal until he admits to cheating. We enter the story in between these torture sessions, which include electrocution and simulated drowning.
But Jamal isn't cheating, as we soon find out. Nor is he a genius, and nor is he just making lucky guesses. He is...well I won't say more, but it's fair to say that you'll enjoy the movie a lot more if you accept that the story really is a fairy tale, and as Jamal recounts his life story in relation to each of the questions he correctly answered on the way to the final question, we’re meant to be inspired, not surprised. His is a story of hope in the midst of despair, joy in the midst of pain, and love in the midst of impossible circumstances. During his young life, Jamal is betrayed, orphaned, kidnapped, held hostage, beaten, and, most painfully, separated from the love of his life, Latika (Freida Pinto). It was his heroic quest for Latika, and not the money, that brought Jamal to “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” in the first place.
The genius of Slumdog Millionaire is that it perfectly balances these two story threads – romance and adventure – with appropriate portions of comedy, drama, and real suspense. Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) livened up his adaptation of Swarup’s novel by traveling to India and interviewing street children in the slums of Mumbai, where the film was eventually shot on location. As Beaufoy explained in a recent interview, "I wanted to get (across) the sense of this huge amount of fun, laughter, chat and sense of community that is in these slums. What you pick up on is this mass of energy." To say the least.
Framing street life in Mumbai as a joyous party is admittedly naïve, but anyone who doesn’t seen the pain, poverty and desperation illustrated throughout Slumdog Millionaire simply has their eyes closed, and they probably aren’t grasping the point of the story anyway. Boyle is not glossing over a terrible situation with syrupy romance, vivid colors, beautiful people, and underdog successes, he’s simply trying to get the attention of the people who believe, rather ethnocentrically, that places like Mumbai are devoid of those universal elements of culture. If you’ve gone home without that realization, wake up and get back to the theater.
Young Jamal Malik has a bright future ahead of him - and he knows it...
Once every few years, a movie comes along that redefines the way you look at cinema. It reminds you that films don't need to be deathly serious in order to be powerful and important, and they don't need to feature Oscar winners in order to showcase impressive acting (especially among the youngest members of the cast). More than anything, they reaffirm your faith in an art form that continues to evolve in ways that you couldn't imagine. Slumdog Millionaire is one of those movies. Like Cidade de Deus before it, and Fight Club before it, Slumdog Millionaire gripped my entire being for two hours, transporting me to another place and another life without allowing for even a moment to breathe. As was the case on election night, I found myself on a natural high as the celebratory end credits rolled. It felt like I'd just won 20 million rupees.
Writing - 10/10
Acting - 10/10
Production - 10/10
Emotional Impact - 10/10
Music - 5/5
Social Significance - 5/5
Total: 50/50= 100% = A+
Addendum: You didn't think I was going to pass up an opportunity to shamelessly boast about the featured song in this movie, did you? Indeed, for the second time this year, a song that I chose last January for the 2007 missing soundtrack was featured in a movie in 2008 (the first being Ryan Shaw's "We Got Love" in My Blueberry Nights), and that's not even counting the ones that have been used in commercials throughout the year. M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" can be heard almost in its entirety in Slumdog Millionaire, fortunately leaving a bigger mark than it did when it was hijacked for the Pineapple Express trailer (which ended up bringing M.I.A. from obscurity to popularity). Although the song wasn't used here in the end credits, as I proposed, it was about as close to perfect as you could get. So the question becomes:
Daniel Getahun is awesome at predicting random songs that would fit well in movies. How did he do it?:
a.) He cheated.
b.) He's lucky.
c.) He's a genius.
d.) It was written.