When everything shakes out at the end of the month, "Slumdog Millionaire" will probably top my list of 2008's best pictures.
An old-fashioned coming-of-age story, the film is set mostly against the exotic squalor of modern day Mumbai, India. We follow two Muslim brothers, Jamal and Salim, from the day their mother is killed by a Hindu mob, but it's the tale's framing device that gives the movie its odd title.
The teenaged Jamal is contestant on the Hindi version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" He's already won 10 million rupees and the program's producers think he must be cheating — how can a slum kid with virtually no formal education know so much? — but they can't figure out how he's doing it. Pulled off the street between taping sessions, Jamal is literally tortured by the cops until he reveals his secret: Episodes from his life have given him the information he needs to answer the questions.
The film then cuts between Jamal's current dilemma, his past adventures and his current attempts to rescue the woman he loves, whom he first met when they were both children.
Some of the boys' exploits, such as their stay with an Indian Fagin who uses orphaned children as beggars, are terrifying, and some, like their time as miniature con men pretending to be tour guides for gullible tourists at the Taj Mahal, are funny. But every adventure tells us more about them and about the beautiful Latika and about the way of life for millions in one of the world's fastest growing economies.
The picture is directed by Danny Boyle ("28 Days Later," "Trainspotting") and the screenplay penned by Simon Beaufoy is adapted from the novel "Q&A" by Vikas Swarup. The ensemble cast is superb, led by Dev Patel, Madhur Mittal and Freida Pinto as the oldest versions of Jamal, Salim and Latika.
These are all things to like about the movie. What I ended up loving is the momentum of Boyle's storytelling, the sparkle with which he makes an old and, honestly, melodramatic tale seem new again. That's partially due to the setting, but also because of Boyle's blending of traditional western structure with Bollywood emotionalism.
He does refrain from inserting a splashy Bollywood production number until the very end, when it plays behind the closing credits. Stay for it. The film's music, by Bollywood favorite A.R. Rahman, is so terrific it may finally drive that ABBA out of your head.
But I'm still a sucker for a well-told, "love conquers all" story about attractive people who have miles to go before they sleep together.
You'll be pulling for Jamal to win the ultimate quiz show prize of 20 million rupees. I was. In fact, when he decided to call a friend for help with the final question, I hoped my cell phone would vibrate — I knew the answer. —Doug Bentin