Two-thirds of the way through Danny Boyle's non-parodic Slumdog Millionaire, we're treated to this exchange between Jamal, the teenage hero who rises from impoverished orphanhood to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire's hot seat, and Latika, the girl he's repeatedly sought out since leaving her behind in childhood:
“Come away with me.”This appears not to be intended as a joke, nor as a "character error," the error being an unwitting stumble into the merciless warzone of melodrama. The entire film, I fear, is actually pitched like this. A kaleidoscopic, poundingly scored piece of near-magical-realism where the unlucky get lucky and just the right people find themselves in rare self-sacrificing moods at just the right time, it's an unapologetic fable. This is fine so far as it goes, except that, to our long-suffering friends subtlety, nuance and plausibility, it does indeed owe a few apologies.
“And live on what?”
But Boyle is, for better or worse, a die-hard filmmaker of conviction. When you've got as much cinematic energy as he does, hustling the ridiculous past an audience's critical sensors sometimes works, as it did in 2004's near-morality play Millions. But there's a limit to this, and sometimes hubris gets the better of him, as it did when the countless ludicrousnesses, small and large, of 1997's A Life Less Ordinary ganged up and smothered him. The fantasy of Slumdog Millionaire demands an astonishing credulity of its audience, not just in its details and execution but in the very core of its being. We're perhaps better off treating it as a light show.
The premise, though, generates a potentially effective form. Knowing that his lost Latika watches Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Indian edition, Jamal jockeys his way onto the program, climbing to the penultimate trivia question before the show takes a lucrative tension-maintaining overnight break. Cuffed and hauled off by the police as he exits the studio, he spends the interim between the first and second broadcast in grueling interrogation, alligator clips, car battery and all. Jamal, we learn, grew up a "slumdog," one of the many millions who populate Mumbai's sprawling shantytowns. Without education or social standing, one of the cops reasons, how else but cheating could he have answered all those questions correctly, knowing of such exotic things as the location of Cambridge Circle, the weapon held by the Hindu god Rama and the face on the American hundred-dollar bill?
Jamal responds to the grilling in flashbacks, explaining just how he happened to come across all this information. Each learning experience, distributed evenly over his life, paints a portrait of the modern young low-class Indian who, despite admirable vigor and perseverance, nevertheless can't catch much of a break without going on a hit game show. He knows where Cambridge Circle is because of his time as a tea boy, or "chai-wallah," at the local — yes — call center. He knows what Rama holds because, running away from a Hindu-led massacre of Muslims in which is mother is killed, he caught the unsettling eyes of a blue-painted little kid in Rama costume. He knows Ben Franklin's face is printed on the hundred-dollar bill because he was handed one by a visiting American couple during his days as an impostor Taj Mahal tour guide.
Dropping the false dime on Jamal was none other than Prem, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire's impossibly pompadoured Indian host. Despite his on-air enthusiasm and restroom encouragement, he keeps too firm a grasp on both the show and his own accomplishment as a slumdog-made-good to refrain from undermining his upstart contestant. This conflict, one of the various indentifiable seeds of excellent films in Slumdog Millionaire that whiz past as Boyle feverishly rushes toward the deliriously happy ending and end-credits Bollywood Dance number, could have supported a fascinating two-hour character study by itself. Instead, Prem's futile efforts represent nothing more than a couple of pathetic obstacles easily swept aside by the hand of fate — or, in this case, the hand of Boyle. Either way, the screen gives the same explanation after Jamal guesses — simply guesses — the final answer to the final question: "It is written."
For all its lack of self-awareness, though, the film is alive and passionate where most major pictures prefer to unconvincingly simulate both qualities. But that doesn't mean it's not frustrating — the "what could've been" laments, mourning the loss of much richer explorations of similar setups, aren't easily ignored — and surprisingly underestimating of audience intelligence. It's odd that the product of India's poorer, more perilous sectors and the director of Trainspotting should come out as pure Old Hollywood, but here it is.