It’s funny how Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in its sundry languages and cultures gets under the skin of so many writers and filmmakers. Yes, it’s the enticement of easy money, but there’s something even more insidious: the fluky mixture of tackiness and grandiosity; the questions that mischievously drift from history to science to the most ephemeral of pop-culture ephemera; the option to “phone a friend” — who might well let one down with a thud, as friends often do. A cruel god puts fortune just within reach — and just out of it. A sense of divine mockery is at the heart of Slumdog Millionaire, a galvanic coming-of-age saga constructed around the show’s Hindi incarnation. The movie, directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later), borrows the ingenious premise (but only a few specifics) from the novel Q & A by Vikas Swarup: A poor young Muslim, Jamal (Dev Patel), wins millions of rupees on TV and is promptly arrested on the grounds that an ignorant “slumdog” who serves chai to better-paid workers must somehow have cheated. Via flashbacks, Jamal explains to a cop (Irfan Khan) how he knew the right answers — how each question, as if by fate, connected with some event in his violent, tragic life.
Boyle is a smashing director, and I mean that literally. He smash-cuts from shot to shot, scene to scene, chase to chase. At the start he has us reeling from the cinematic blows: He leaps back and forth between Jamal in the game-show hot seat and Jamal in a different kind of hot seat, where a fat interrogator gives him jolts of electricity. Frankly, I don’t trust Boyle; I feel the need to defend myself against a director for whom brutality and slickness are so inextricable. But he’s brilliant at what he does, at the kind of hyperkinetic, every-shot-a-grabber filmmaking that many attempt and few bring off. Even with the arty lighting and tricky focus and canted angles, the action is fluid, the momentum headlong. Slumdog Millionaire is his liveliest fusion of style and content since Trainspotting.
Like the hero of that movie, Jamal is always running for his life. When he’s little and his older brother Salim locks him in an outdoor latrine as his favorite film star arrives in their district, he drops through a pit of excrement and dashes — a mushy brown blob — for his hero’s autograph. He and his brother run from Hindis on a murderous rampage, then flee a despicable Fagin-like boss whose cruelty is breathtaking. As each flashback ends, there’s a corresponding game-show question posed by a condescending emcee (the splendidly smarmy Anil Kapoor). The man is the very devil, but Jamal’s eyes are on a prize that transcends filthy lucre: Latika, a girl who escaped his village after her family was killed and whom he and his brother liberated from prostitution. Now, she’s the kept woman of an abusive gangster.
In her mature incarnation, Latika is played by Freida Pinto and is impossibly model-gorgeous. That’s the point at which Slumdog Millionaire becomes floridly romantic — and even more superficial. The actors play it big: I get the feeling that when “Action!” is called on a Danny Boyle movie, the metronome is ticking — they have to register emotion fast. But Boyle has something up his sleeve: As the film grows less gritty and more formulaic, it becomes more Bollywood: Colors pop out, music swells, the morally ambivalent characters atone. He even ends with a big production number, a song and dance featuring the grown-up leads along with the little kids who played them in earlier scenes. With its riches, romance, and wondrous sense of destiny, Slumdog Millionaire has an ingenious subtext: The capricious, teasing god of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is kicked off the screen by the exuberant god of Bollywood. The whole thing is irresistibly preposterous.