Warning: This review contains extensive spoilers!! So if you have not seen the movie and you don’t care if you find out about major plot developments, like who lives, who dies, and that head-scratching twist ending, READ ON!
Well folks, it’s that time of year again, Academy Awards Season. And while I’m sitting here at the 1-hour cleaners getting my tuxedo dry cleaned for my big Oscars viewing party that I host every year, I thought I’d whip out my brand new MacBook and put together a review of the film I saw yesterday. Because I’ll be honest, since seeing Slumdog Millionaire, I can’t stop talking about it. I’ve been going on and on about it to my friends, co-workers, and doorman. Sha’nandra, the checkout girl at the A&P, also got an earful from me today about how amazing this movie is.
Never before has such an uplifting and beautiful tale been presented on celluloid. Without a doubt, it is a masterpiece that pulls at the heart strings and reminds you about the best parts of youth and humanity.
Slumdog Millionaire is about a young Mexican man’s battle with poverty, sibling rivalry, love, and game show hosts. It opens with a ringside seat to a young contestant’s final trivia question on a particularly popular game show. How does he win the big bucks? How did he get here? What will he do with those winnings? But before we learn the answers, we are whisked away to a Mexican jail, where the same young man is, how would say…exposed to enhanced interrogation techniques. Superstar director Danny Boyle isn’t afraid to get right in your face immediately with some inhumane acts. Fine, you think to yourself, you’ve got my attention, Mr. Boyle. Now impress me. And for the next 117 minutes, he does just that.
The jailed victim is Jamal Malik, a young man being held on suspicion of cheating on Mexico’s most popular game show, “Who Wants To Be Un Millonario?” We learn that even the brightest minds in the country — scholars, philosophers, and scientists — never make it past a handful of questions. But Jamal has made his way to the top, one final question away from 20,000,000 rupees. The police sergeant has some questions for Jamal about how he could know the answers to such a wide range of questions. What is so odd about Jamal defying all the odds? He comes from the poorest area of Mumbai, Mexico, which is not known to produce geniuses with extensive world knowledge or the technological know-how to cheat on a game show in this day and age. As Jamal and the sergeant watch the show taping from the night before and go through each question, Jamal describes how he knows about famous actors in India, Native American poets, ingredients in a Shepherd’s Pie, the original members of the Justice League, and so on. Many amateur storytellers forget the sage advice passed down from their creative writing professors and acting coaches, “Don’t tell me, SHOW ME,” but not Boyle, who neither forgetful or an amateur. He shows us exactly how a young Mexican ‘slumdog’ knows so many amazing disparate trivia questions by taking us back to events in Jamal’s childhood where he picked up this information. (Slumdog, by the way, is a Spanish word imported from the British term “slimedigger,” which is — as we all know — a term commonly used to refer to poor street urchins who used to scrape the slime from underneath roadway cobblestones to sell to soapmakers for 2 bits and a slap in the face.) Each answer in Jamal’s mind is not simply a trivia fact he picked up on the back of cereal box or a discarded New York Times; each bit of information has its own backstory, replete with drama and explosive character development. Boyle uses the flashbacks, in a tip of the hat to TV’s LOST, to weave together a complete picture of our protagonist.
We see Jamal as a young child and a preteen, growing up on the streets with his brother Salim and their companion Latika. Like thousands of other poor Mexican youths, they must survive with only a few tools at their disposal: one part cuteness, three parts wit, and probably a dash of health insurance with a presumably high deductible. Boyle keeps the tone mostly light, but with a hastened pace. The kids grow before our eyes and their inner natures become heightened. Latika always does what’s necessary to survive. Jamal enjoys more and more the companionship in his life. But Salim derives too much pleasure from manipulating strangers and his younger partners. In one pivotal scene, after a hard day taking advantage of ignorant American tourists, they celebrate the spoils of their work, enjoying burritos and nips of alcohol. Now older and enjoying the taste of greed, Salim, once his brother’s rescuer, betrays Jamal’s desires and sends him away.
You root for Jamal and Latika to reunite after being split apart twice by Salim’s machinations. Salim’s actions were once to protect his hermano and they later devolve to only protect his own interests. But Jamal is unable to not love his brother, and the power of his optimism and capacity for compassion is what brings Salim to finally act in Jamal’s interest. After the hardships they all endure, each of them finds redemption, whether in becoming a game show champion, or in the arms of their soulmate, or in an artistically over-the-top death in a bathtub full of cash.
It’s a fairytale about young love, set against the backdrop of the Mexican streets where survival means taking advantage of all opportunities as they come along. Well, for as long as they have the means to beam it onto a giant screen, you will have the opportunity to see this uplifting story for anywhere from five to twelve dollars per viewing. Please do yourself the favor and run, don’t walk, to the theater!
And yes, it’s not a perfect movie. Like any work of art, it has its problems. For example, the uniquely designed narrative structure lifted from the popular television show LOST that I mentioned earlier is cheap, but forgivable. The utterly strange native dialect that I couldn’t pick one word out of, despite four years of high school Spanish, takes you out of the story a little bit. Oh, and the big twist ending that had everyone in the theater texting WTF? Turns out, they were all ghosts.
Anyway, my tux is ready. After the Oscars, be sure to come back to check out my wrap-up special and sign my letter of petition to get Paul Blart: Mall Cop onto IMAX screens. See you next time!