Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire is what type of film? A) an inspirational underdog story, B) a harrowing look at the life of a Mumbai street child, C) an epic romance punctuated by tragedy and victory, or D) an affecting crime drama centered upon bitter sibling rivalry.
Give up? Slumdog Millionaire is all of those things and more. It's the reason we go to the movies in the first place, and by the time it reaches its climax, you're likely to be yelling at the screen the same way that television viewers around the world did back when Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was at the peak of its popularity. Whether you go to the movies to be thrilled, terrified, elated, inspired, or simply entertained, Slumdog Millionaire does not disappoint. At this point in his career, Boyle has worked in a variety of genres, and here they all come together to create the perfect cinematic storm, an irresistible burst of big-screen optimism that will have the critics swooning and the cynics smiling. Of course, there are times when the waters can get pretty rough for India's most beloved dark-horse game-show contestant, but what are the best moments in life without the worst ones to make them all the more meaningful?
The first time we see Jamal, he's being tortured by the police. He's just come off the set of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and the authorities are convinced that he's just cheated his way to the million-dollar question. But Jamal is no cheat, and as he recalls the life experiences that taught him the answers to the questions he was asked on the popular game show, we come to learn why street smarts are as essential to surviving in the slums of Mumbai as ruthless business savvy is to rising through the criminal ranks. Jamal and his older brother, Salim, were just young boys when their single mother was killed by rioters right before their eyes, and after being orphaned they lived in a garbage dump just to survive. In those dark days, the only thing that kept Jamal going was his love for the beautiful Latika. She, too, was an orphan, and upon joining the two brothers, she was forever bound by fate to both of them. Later, when Jamal and Salim were driven apart by lust and greed, Jamal and Latika were forced to go their separate ways. Now, years later, Jamal is determined to get his lady back, and reasoning that the best way to find her is to become a contestant on the nation's most popular game show, the lovelorn "chai boy" lands an appearance on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? But Jamal never thought that he would even get close to winning the top prize, and when he does, the authorities want to know how a kid born in the ghetto could possibly know the answers to such difficult questions.
Thus begins a truly remarkable tale of hope, love, and profound adversity. As the detective reviews a videotape of Jamal's appearance on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the irrepressible "slumdog" tells the story of how he came to know the answer to each question in vivid detail. Each answer is a journey unto itself -- sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes humorous -- and the further we travel, the more we become invested in the characters. Through it all, we come to understand just what a decent person Jamal truly is, and why his romance with Latika seemed doomed from the moment they first met. This effect is owed largely to actor Dev Patel, who portrays the older Jamal with such terminal honesty that he gives us a constant place to project our optimism. We relate to him, and after experiencing his hardships, we want desperately to see him win the money and walk away with the girl. His innocence is infectious, and even as different actors take over the role throughout Jamal's journey to adulthood, that purity remains a compelling constant. It's a testament to the casting that we always know Jamal, Salim, and Latika the moment they appear onscreen, and in a movie as nonlinear as Slumdog Millionaire, it's essential that the viewer doesn't get distracted from the story by the struggle to pick out the main players. Fortunately, that never happens, leaving us free to lose ourselves in Simon Beaufoy's smartly structured screenplay, Anthony Dod Mantle's hyper-saturated, glowingly gritty photography, and Chris Dickens' crackerjack editing -- all of which are marvelously held together by veteran Bollywood composer A.R. Rahman's buoyant score, an invigorating fusion of Eastern and Western musical sensibilities. A great movie is something more than the sum total of all its parts, and here, the elements all come together to form a feature that speaks a universal form of optimism that isn't likely to get lost in translation, no matter where it screens, or who is watching.