The title, “Slumdog Millionaire”, refers to a particular person, Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), as he grew up in the slums of Mumbai and is now the unexpected position of being a finalist on India’s version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” Doctors and lawyers, they haven’t made it this far in the game and yet here is this young kid who works in a call centre on the verge of taking the big prize. The kid doesn’t even answer the phones; he gets the coffee for the people who answer the phones. How could he know the answers to all these questions? He has no formal education; he doesn’t come from a well-respected background. The answer is simple. He must be cheating. And so when the show breaks for the day, Malik is secretly taken into custody and tortured by the police so that he can explain to them just how he’s done it. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t take too kindly to the torture and he also doesn’t believe that he has anything to hide. Malik simply sits down with the detective (an underused Irrfan Khan) and explains, question by question, how his life experiences taught him everything he needed to know.
Boyle likes to play with style in his movies and "Slumdog Millionaire" is certainly no different than "Sunshine" or "Trainspotting" on this level. Thankfully, his style is never solely used to make up for a lack of substance but there is still something to be said about overdoing it. It is beautifully shot, full of life and colour, but it is often excessive and distracting. I mean, even the sub-titles are over-stylized, appearing anywhere on the screen and boxed by another bright colour to separate them from the image. I wish Boyle would learn to trust his natural instincts more and not feel he needs these embellishes to keep our attention. He just doesn’t do simple and all the while that he’s putting these flourishes on the image, he misses how the rigidity of Simon Beaufoy’s story is stifling the plausibility of Malik’s plight. Essentially, Malik must give us his entire life story as it relates to the game questions. The structure becomes deliberate and expected very quickly – question, explanation, question, explanation. There is no room for surprise and how boring is fate without that particular element?
“Slumdog Millionaire” is still a crowd pleaser. It’s just of the contrived and conventional variety but cleverly disguised as topical and concerned. Boyle does expose us to an original love story between Malik and his childhood love, Latika (played as an adult by Freida Pinto), told in the unlikely setting of the dangerous Mumbai streets. Poverty and corruption frame what is a genuinely believable and moving love between these two young actors. They are not only both beautiful but they are both innocent and sincere. You will root for them and you will delight in their ultimate outcomes that culminate in a jubilant closing credit sequence (stay in your seat, trust me). But if whatever events in your life led you to seeing this movie and made you into the kind of person that can see past the flare to the formal, then you know that fate is not as specific nor as simple to spot as Boyle seems to believe.
Review by Joseph Bélanger