Boyle is a master of his niche, which includes suspenseful angles, rapid pans and zooms and vibrant environments. It worked for his zombie tale, a genre that demands intimacy, and “Trainspotting,” which brought a painful realism to heroin addiction. But what about a tale like “Slumdog Millionaire,” which seeks to depict the pangs and suffering of children living in Mumbai and how twists of fate could make their lives better?
Such a story requires patient characterization, carefully crafted plotting and overt sensitivity to the history and demography of India. Unfortunately, “Slumdog” betrays itself before it even begins — a director with a flare for the feverish, with a story that has to shortchange itself to keep up. A film that had the potential to expose the complex, financially stratified metropolis of Mumbai and its inhabitants is boiled down to a series of fortunate events which, when woven together, require the utmost suspension of disbelief.
The story follows Jamal (Dev Patel), an orphan from a Mumbai slum who has, through strange strokes of luck, made his way on to the Hindi version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” As the film starts, Jamal is one question away from winning 20 million rupees, a handsome sum for a kid whose day job includes passing out tea to call-center workers.
There’s a slight problem, however. The host, Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor, a grittier Regis Philbin), doesn’t buy Jamal’s luck, and stages an overnight interrogation to find out just who is helping Jamal cheat. To prove his innocence, Jamal explains the origin of each correct answer, allowing the film to explain Jamal’s singular goal in life: to find Latika (Freida Pinto), his estranged childhood flame.
In tracing these answers, we learn of Jamal’s trials, from falling into a pile of feces just to get Amitabh Bachan’s autograph, to escaping persecution from a twisted entrepreneur looking to blind orphans and force them to sing for money on street corners. These tales tug at your heartstrings, but rather than reach some crescendo of a resolution, they end up as just another sad tune. Instead of expounding on the theme of slum struggle, the film is really just about boy chasing girl, and it’s the chase that gives the movie its choppy, commercial feel. Most of the film plays like a trailer, set to an M.I.A. soundtrack — oh, how fitting are those lyrics to “Paper Planes” as these kids ride atop a train — and spliced shots of urban dwellers and spotty infrastructure.
“Slumdog Millionaire” is at its best when it does not force artifice and instead brings depth to its characters through insightful dialogue. One key scene highlights the film’s rare flash of brilliance. During Jamal’s interrogation, the police inspector (Irfan Khan) wonders why Jamal had to use a 50/50 lifeline to figure out the words etched on India’s flag — surely such a fact is ubiquitous in every segment of Indian society. Jamal cleverly counters, asking the inspector if he knows, like he does, who stole from the market last week. When the inspector claims ignorance, Jamal explains that the entire village knows who stole; it is a deceptively profound point that explains why local knowledge is as important as expertise in a Mumbai slum, a place poor in infrastructure, but rich in social capital.
Unfortunately, such brilliant exchanges are few and far between in a film that was clearly capable of cinematic brilliance — if only it slowed down.