Fox // 2008 // 120 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // March 31st, 2009
Who wants to be a millionaire?
When I first heard about Slumdog Millionaire, I was completely dumbfounded that Danny Boyle was the director. Nothing on his (admittedly impressive) list of movies made me think he was the right choice to direct a film so completely immersed in Indian culture. Now though, I've seen the film and the choice makes a lot more sense. First, Slumdog is in many ways rehashed Dickens (with the story of a loveable young street urchin taking on the establishment), and a British director like Boyle seems the perfect fit. Second, Slumdog fits perfectly in Boyle's canon as the bastard child of Trainspotting and A Life Less Ordinary. Sadly, it generally lacks the black humor of the former and the easy charm of the latter.
Jamal Malik is one question away from the top prize on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. However, he grew up a "slumdog" in the streets of Mumbai, and the police are convinced that there's no way this uneducated young man, whose current job involves getting people tea, can possibly know all the answers on the quiz show. Despite these odds, Jamal is not cheating. Instead, he leads detectives through his life story, showing how he came to know each of the bits of trivia because of his experiences in the street.
Let's get this out of the way first: despite all the praise and award hype, I didn't like Slumdog Millionaire. The reason is fairly simple. I don't think the film is effective in combining the gritty realism of its premise with the fairytale, fated-love idea it's trying to sell. If the film had tacked a little more one way or the other it might have been better, but as it is the grit intrudes on the fairytale, and the fate takes away from the realism.
Slumdog is presented in the same hyper-kinetic style of Boyle's early work, especially his brilliant Trainspotting. I think that Trainspotting is an absolute success in contrast to Slumdog. In the former film, we're given a very hyper-real depiction of heroin addiction and the life of an addict (complete with Ewan McGregor diving into a toilet). However, the film isn't just a romp through the life of a druggie. Instead we get to see how addiction works, and the film casts a cold eye on the institutions (like courts and rehab centers) that purport to help but often harm. This has the effect of both grounding the film in reality while also giving the audience a reason for the problems of the characters. In contrast, Slumdog gives us the same gritty realism of Trainspotting (complete with toilet diving by a young Jamal), including some of the mechanics behind street-level survival, but fails to show us anything beyond the eyes of these children. We're not given any reason for the misery, no glimpse into the world outside that of the "slumdogs" to see, which takes away from the horrors that these kids experience. The final difference is in the characters. Trainspotting features a cast of three-dimensional characters, from the psychotic Begbie to the terminally lost Spud. Slumdog offers no such complexity. Jamal is all but a cipher, and the rest of the characters are either completely good (like his lady love Latika), or completely evil (pretty much everyone else). The film stabs at characterization with Salim, but his motives are so opaque that he may as well be completely evil.
I can see some defending the film against these charges on the grounds that it's a fairytale. The film certainly supports this view with the "it was written" nonsense that bookends the movie. However, as I said, the realism of much of the film detracts from the fairytale elements. Having a young boy covered in feces just doesn't jibe with the "it was written" kind of sentimentality.
Fox sent over a screener, so it's difficult to comment on the final audiovisual quality of the film. From what I could see, colors will be strong, but all the fine detail was washed out with noise on this disc. The audio sounded pretty good, although there wasn't as much dynamic range as I would have expected from a film like this.
Technically, Slumdog Millionaire is perfect. All the actors are very convincing in their roles (especially Jamal and his interrogators). Danny Boyle's infectious visual style is again in evidence and he knows how to use his camera. Everything from the slums of Mumbai to the Taj Mahal is kept visually interesting. Although the visual flair didn't always support the story, it did make the film fun to look at.
Fox didn't scrimp on the extras with this release. Although it's tempting to want a multi-disc special edition for a critics' darling like Slumdog, the solid (though relatively short) list of extras on this DVD is preferable. First up, the supplements are anchored by a pair of commentary tracks. The first features Danny Boyle and Dev Patel, and the pair are a talkative match. Boyle shares much of the film's production history, especially the difficulties encountered by westerners in India, while Dev shares his own experiences as well. The second track features producer Christian Colson and writer Simon Beaufoy. Unsurprisingly, the pair share many details of the genesis of the project, with Beaufoy focusing a lot on the differences between his screenplay and source novel. Next up are twelve deleted scenes totaling around 33 minutes. These include a longer chase through the slums as well as some more material with the older Jamal. For a peek at the production we get the 23-minute "Slumdog Dreams" that includes both behind the scenes production footage and interviews with the cast and crew. Finally, the disc offers "Slumdog Cutdown" which condenses the film's entire narrative to fit the length of the song "Jai Ho," which was featured in the film's closing credits. I think I preferred this version of the film.
I am sympathetic to the aims of Slumdog Millionaire. I too think that life in the slums of Mumbai is both tragic and beautifully human. However, unlike those behind Slumdog, I don't think a black-and-white fairytale is the best way to present the humanity of those in the slums. Obviously I'm not going to sway the multitudes from seeing such a well-known film, but I would urge first time viewers to be prepared for the (over)simplicity of the film's story. For fans of Slumdog, this disc offers everything you could want in terms of extras.
Slumdog Millionaire is guilty of ineffectively mixing fantasy and reality.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English, Hindi)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Slumdog Cutdown