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Slumdog Millionaire (2008): **½

Directed by Danny Boyle

Slumdog Millionaire has some good performances, some good direction, good music, and some very charming scenes (especially in the first half). But Best Picture? Really? For a movie so very deeply flawed?

My number one main problem with the movie is that it consistently violates its own premise in ways that seem lazy and stupid rather than clever and interesting. Here's the basic premise: a young man named Jamal gets on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. He has no education whatsoever; he grew up in the slums (hence Slumdog). And yet he knows the answers to all of the questions to which he shouldn't know the the answers. How does he know them? Turns out his slumdog life was so crazy that he just happened to be exposed to the answers in ways you wouldn't expect.

That seems like a movie premise that would be very easy to stick to: Guy gets asked a question, and then you have a flashback as to how he learned the answer. Repeat, each question seeming more unlikely that he could possibly know the answer. Simple, right? And full of great ways to have comedy, drama, and clever situations that make the audience go, "Ah! I never would have guessed he learned it that way!"

And the movie's first story does start out promising: a funny and disgusting tale about how when he was a very young boy Jamal dove into a pile of poop in order to get a Bollywood star's autograph. But soon there's a question about what object a specific Hindu deity (Ramallah) is typically portrayed as holding. And it turns out that Jamal knows about this because he was forced to flee through the streets of his slum during an anti-Muslim riot. As he turns a corner there is what appears to be a small child fully decked out as the deity. With no explanation. What the-? That doesn't even make any frikkin' sense! Was it actually a kid dressed up as the deity? If so, why? Or was it supposed to be some sort of a vision of the deity? I don't know! Rawr!

Later on the host of the game show tries to sabotage Jamal (apparently out of jealousy) by feeding him the wrong answer to the question, but Jamal distrusts the host and therefore doesn't follow his advice. And that's how he gets the answer right. It has nothing to do with his crazy childhood. Cough. Yeah.

At another point the film jumps ahead several years and suddenly Jamal is working in a call center as a tea server. No explanation as to how he got there, especially without the help of his brother, who did all of the heavy lifting in their relationship.

And the second half of the film devolves into basically a gangster movie, and not a very interesting gangster movie in that. His brother kills a gang leader and gets hired by a rival gang leader, and at that point the movie stops being clever or smart and becomes just another gangster, brother-vs-brother type of movie.

One of the main threads through the movie is the "romance" between Jamal and a girl from their slums named Latika. I put "romance" in quotes because it's that kind of love story where the young boy falls in love with the young girl for no apparent reason and then still loves her even though they've both grown and he hasn't seen her in years and has no idea (and indeed doesn't even care) what kind of woman she's become. He doesn't actually love her; he loves his weird, idealized, childhood memory of her. Sorry, I don't find that particularly romantic. Kinda disturbingly obsessive, maybe.

There's also a framing device wherein the bitchy game show host has Jamal arrested, where he is interrogated by the police and forced to explain his reasons for knowing the answers to the game show questions. It seemed to me to be an uninteresting and unnecessary extra step of removal from the story: Jamal is being interrogated, we flashback to Jamal being asked the question on the game show, we then flashback within the flashback to the life experiences that (sometimes) lead to the answer. I also didn't find the whole enmity of the game show host interesting or necessary. It seemed like it was just keeping us away from the childhood flashbacks, which is what the real meat of the movie should have been.

There are good and clever parts to this movie. I really enjoyed the scenes of Jamal and his brother living on top of trains and fleecingnaive tourists at the Taj Mahal. I really enjoyed how he knew which US president was on the $100 bill. Freida Pinto, who plays the grown-up Latika, is shockingly beautiful.

But the movie violates its own premise too many times, has too many framing devices that pull us away from the meat of the movie, and becomes an uninteresting gangster movie and an unappealing romance. It is not anywhere near best picture quality. And that is my final answer.


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