Who wants to be a Slumdog Millionaire?

Review by John C. Snider

In the department of off-topic movie reviews…

Back in the 1930s, Hollywood pumped out a steady stream of movies–notably lighthearted song-and-dance romantic comedies starring folks like Fred Astaire–aimed at average moviegoers, most of whom were suffering as a result of the nation’s financial downturn.  With the world going to hell in a handcart just outside the theatre doors, audiences could watch while Regular Joes stumbled into a lives of luxury and won the girl to boot.

And while we might not technically be in a Depression now, we’re certainly in a heck of a recession, and Hollywood is taking note.  I predict an increasing number of what I like to call “recession porn,” films that encourage the fantasy, like the above-mentioned classics, that working-class stiffs can hit it big by combining persistence with a little luck.

Perhaps the tip of this lurking iceberg is New in Town, a disposable comedy starring Rene Zellweger and Harry Connick, Jr.  Zellweger plays an up-and-coming financial exec in stilleto heels who is sent to Minnesota to liquidate a small food-processing plant and lay off the workers (a move that is sure to devastate a community with few employment options).  Suffice to say that, in the end, Zellweger sees the light, and abandons her shiny cosmopolitan lifestyle for the quilted comforts of smalltown life in the warm embrace of Harry Connick, Jr.  And everybody gets to keep their jobs.  Sure, it’s a bit of fantasy fluff, and it works on a certain superficial level, but this is a film destined for the dustbin of obscurity.

On the other end of the artistic spectrum, there’s Slumdog Millionaire, director Danny Boyle’s quasi-Bollywood drama about an 21st century office boy who finds himself on the Indian equivalent of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? In this case, Jamal (Dev Patel) stands to win 20 million rupees (about half a million dollars) by answering the now-famous series of trivia questions.  But as the movie unfolds, viewers realize that he’s not on the show for the money.

Slumdog is a strange movie.  It’s laugh-out-loud funny at times, but it also shows the crushing poverty and abject cruelty of the Mumbai ghettos in mindnumbing detail.  In a series of flashbacks, we see the travails of Jamal and elder brother Salim (Madhur Mittal), Muslim boys who live in squalor that would make Charles Dickens blanch.  Orphaned when their mother is murdered by a Hindu mob (apparently out to purge the crowded neighborhood of unwanted Muslims), the brothers become street children, where they befriend another orphan named Latika (Freida Pinto).  Jamal eventually falls in love with Latika, while Salim sees her as a hindrance, and later as nothing more than an asset to trade or abandon as circumstances dictate.

It’s probably no spoiler to say that Jamal doesn’t end up broke and lonely, but while the end of Slumdog might be predictable, the unfolding of the story is the real payoff.  This is a movie about fate, which is, ironically, also the film’s greatest weakness: Jamal beats the trivia game, not because of book-learning, but because each question just so happens to connect with some signal occurrence in Jamal’s checkered childhood (sometimes these occurrences are almost too horrible for words).  The endless line of unlikely scenarios that end up providing Jamal with the right answers eventually beggars belief.  (It’s also more than a little crazy how many times, given that India is a nation of a billion-plus people, that Jamal and Latika’s paths repeatedly cross.)  Still, although viewers will soon sit back and wait for the inevitable happy ending, Slumdog Millionaire is a movie with a lot of charm and spunk.  The slender, Obama-eared, slightly cross-eyed Dev Patel has boyish charisma aplenty, and it will be interesting to see how Hollywood utilizes him in the future.  Freida Pinto is a breathtaking beauty and shows great promise as an actress–this is her very first project, but it’s obvious she has natural talent.

Despite winning a eight Academy Awards (including for Best Picture), Slumdog Millionaire won’t do the Indian tourist trade any favors (unlike, say, more glossed-over Western fare like The Darjeeling Limited).  Perhaps Slumdog‘s greatest legacy will be in paving the way for a full-blown, honest-to-Krishna, Hollywood-produced Bollywood feature, with over-the-top song and dance routines embedded in the story.  Kind of like the old Hollywood musicals of the 1930s.

Even though it’s still in the theatres here and there, Slumdog Millionaire is already out on Blu-ray and DVD.

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