Since winning the coveted People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Festival, Slumdog Millionaire has established itself as the most-hyped art movie of the year. Director Danny Boyle's India-based drama is not the feel-good, life-changing experience so many would have you believe, though. That's not to say that it's not a very good movie, or that it doesn't make you question your cynicism about humanity just a bit, but compared to Boyle's earlier works, it just doesn't measure up.
The director of minor classics such as Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, and 28 Days Later . . ., Boyle's style suffers from artistic ADD; it consciously shifts and changes with each of his varied projects, always finding the appropriate visual voice. Slumdog is no different. Set in Mumbai and its earlier incarnation as Bombay, the movie looks like a box of Crayola crayons exploded onscreen; a vivid variety of the colors serves as the backdrop for the squalor and desperation that seethes just under the city's surface. Here, Muslim brothers Jamal and Salim Malik were born and somehow survived to adulthood despite the odds. Jamal (Dev Patel), in particular, has defied his violent youth and grown into a soft-spoken, gentle 18-year-old who, in the opening sequence, has just answered the penultimate question on India's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? His seemingly triumphant moment is juxtaposed against his torture that night by the local police, who presume an uneducated "slumdog" could not have gotten so far on the game show, farther than any lawyer or doctor ever has, unless he cheated. And they want to know how. Jamal's answer is the basis of the movie; for most of the remaining running time, he explains each of his answers, and how his tragic life experiences provided him with them. And what a life Jamal has had, from watching his mother get her skull smashed in by anti-Muslim protestors to working for and escaping from a nightmare version of Fagin, to repeatedly losing the girl he loves, Latikia (Freida Pinto), to forces he, at first, believed he could trust.
Boyle, born to a British working-class family, has always opted for protagonists who have placed more value on their life experiences than books--even Chris Evans' Mace in Sunshine acted like the blue-collar astronaut--and Slumdog is no different. In fact, it feels like an argument for the value of life lessons--knowledge gain by experience--over the lessons found in the classroom. The message is effective, but the movie lacks any magic beyond its color palette. The soundtrack, in particular, serves as a magic vacuum whenever it kicks in. Sure, Jamal is a Dickensian orphan who becomes, in his way, a gentleman, but this fairy tale never realizes what it wants to be.