For those of you who are closely following the November and December horse race of potential Oscar films, don’t count out Slumdog Millionaire. It might not have a Leo or a Kate or even a Batman in it, but this latest film from Danny Boyle (of Trainspotting and 28 Days Later) is just the kind of feel-good, energetic film that will have voters feeling magnanimous come voting times. And rightly so, because Slumdog Millionaire (in spite of having a title that really does nothing for you until you’ve actually seen the movie) is very sharp, smartly executed and has just enough sneaky sentiment that reviewers will surely bust out all their clichés (“you’ll be cheering in your seats!”).
We meet our hero, Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), while he’s a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? And if anyone needs a strong flashback to those heady late ’90s/early aught days, just hearing the theme music will make you feel instantly nostalgic for Regis. Eighteen-year-old Jamal is an orphan, raised on the streets (a.k.a. a “Slumdog”) in poverty and unimaginable circumstances. When he starts to answer enough questions correctly to get near the big cash prize, there’s suspicion that he’s been cheating. He’s hauled off for questioning, and it’s there—with the always awesome Irfan Kahn (The Namesake) as interrogator—that we’re able to flashback through Jamal’s life and find out why it is that an uneducated kid knows all the answers. The screenplay was based on the novel Q&A by Vikas Swarup, and the clever structure might have been annoying or even felt contrived if Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay wasn’t so stylish. Jamal, it turns out, has been through an awful lot. He and his older brother, Salim, manage to escape an attack that kills their mother, only to be left starving and on their own. But they join up with another, a little girl named Latika, and dub themselves the The Three Musketeers. More trials and triumphs follow, none that we’ll spoil. Suffice it to say that there are many surprises—and horrors—in the movie, but there’s a lot of sweetness, too: This whole slick package is wrapped around an unabashed love story. The actors are all pretty good—most amazing are the little kids that portray young Jamal, Salim and Latika and the performances Mr. Boyle was able to coax out of them. Clearly, the director had some sort of spiritual awakening in India, or at least a love affair with the landscape. Even when shooting scenes of dirt and misery, he can’t help but still make India look beautiful, and full of color. Also, the musical score is kind of genius, even though we could stand not to have another movie that features MIA’s “Paper Planes.” (Though yes, it works great here, and if we had to choose between it being in this one or Pineapple Express, Slumdog would win hands down. Also, a famous film critic was dancing in their seat in front of us.) Lastly, judging from this film’s conclusion, we’d like to request that all movies end from now on with a giant dance number.
Slumdog Millionaire opens Wednesday at Angelika Film Center.