Thursday, December 18, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

(I've tried to keep this as spoiler-free as possible. See the damn movie, will ya?)

If this movie was any indication, it's going to be a good movie season.

I haven't seen a movie in a while that sent me this deep into film-geek heaven. The last one might even have been Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. From the opening scenes, with cameras behind the rotating cameras of India's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and Dev Patel sweating under the lights, I was sucked into a world that Danny Boyle has no right to have created so perfectly.

Boyle might not have grown up in the slums of India, but he understands the streets and feels for the kids and knows how to make you feel for them too. At heart, Danny Boyle is a romantic, which might sound funny for me to say of a man best known for Trainspotting and 28 Days Later. But it's true.

All the gritty realism of those films, the swirling action and heady plunge into an alien world, is here, plus a deeper love of humanity that showed up better in A Life Less Ordinary (and possibly Millions, which I haven't seen but which also revolves around a child). Slumdog Millionaire pulls together all the threads of Boyle's career into a movie that easily tops them all.

So many horrible things happen to Jamal (Patel) but he still manages to hope and love, and that's the deepest message of this film and the one that resonated and left me grinning like an idiot as I walked out of the theater. But it's also a movie about class and capitalism, not so much about the clash of East and West as it is the clash of money with humanity.

Jamal wins 10 million rupees on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," but since he's a poor kid from the slums, he's arrested for cheating. The movie flashes back through his life, explaining how he knew the answer to each question, and showing a life that would've turned a lesser kid hard and mean. That did turn his brother Salim hard and mean.

Salim as an adult is lanky-sexy and hard as nails, and we see in him all that Jamal could've become. But Jamal had Salim as a barrier against the world, and had Latika to love. So he remains wide-eyed and trusting and awkwardly charming, and with each bit of pain he endures we pull for him a bit more, like the Indian audience that tunes in to cheer for him on "Millionaire." He is, after all, a piece of all of them.

I could talk at length about gorgeous overhead shots--a market, a train, the Taj Mahal--or a scene in which the boys' clambering up a set of bleachers to steal purses is ten times more beautiful than the opera the rich folks are watching. I could talk about the kids from actual slums in India, who do an amazing job carrying much of the movie. There's just so much here that begs to be seen again, and again.

The movie takes on lots of weighty subjects and themes through the lives of the boys. Their mother dies in anti-Muslim violence, they have to learn to fend for themselves, and fight off a gangster who is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to turn kids into better beggars (in one of the movie's most horrific scenes).

And the boys learn to make money. One of the questions that Jamal answers correctly is which U.S. statesman is on the hundred-dollar bill, and Salim crawls into a bathtub filled with money at the film's end. Money is always there, but ultimately it's not what Jamal wants. He wants the girl, and when it comes down to the ending we're all reminded that the money more often than not is what hurt the boys the most (though plenty of other things do as well).

The coolness with which the police officers torture Jamal and then are captivated by his story and become the good guys is chilling, and a commentary on the willingness of good people to do bad things that sets up later events perfectly.

Of course, the obvious theme is that what Jamal learns on the streets sets him up for success more than anything he could've learned in school. That knowledge and wisdom are not things that can be bought and sold with a degree or a fancy house or any other trinket of privilege. What it says that his final question on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" is one about a classic of Western literature is something I'll have to think more about, and I wonder if it was the same in the novel the story came from. But the question also relates to Jamal's life, his bonds with his brother and the girl he loves, and these are the true meaning of the film.

Because Jamal is willing to throw away the money he's won at every turn, just to stay on TV a bit longer, just in case the girl he loves is watching.