Whimsy mixes uneasily with third world strife in "Slumdog Millionaire," an overly convenient romantic drama that feels too prefabricated to be bought into. Director Danny Boyle (2007's "Sunshine
") wants so very badly for audiences to love his latest effort, but his overzealous aims and lack of restraint have the opposite effect. He tosses in everything but the kitchen sinkyes, there is even an end-credits Bollywood musical number that distastefully follows the brutal murder of a prominent characterand all he has to show for it is a large heap of clanking spare parts.
The film, based on the novel "Q & A" by Vikas Swarup and adapted for the screen by Simon Beaufoy (2008's "Miss Petigrew Lives for a Day
"), features an innovative storytelling device. 18-year-old Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) finds himself a contest on the Hindi version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?," hosted by the intense Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor). When he gets every question right and is only one away from the twenty-million rupee grand prize, a police inspector (Irfan Khan) with torturous methods steps in behind the scenes to find out if Jamal has been cheating. Meanwhile, the timeline flashes back to Jamal's troubled pastwith his mother killed, he and elder brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) lived their early years homeless in the slums of Indiauncovering the root that allowed him to answer each question correctly. Through it all, Jamal always believed that his soul mate was Latika (Freida Pinto), a fellow orphan whom he is determined to save from the exploitive, abusive adult life she is headed toward.
One's suspension of disbelief is forced into overdrive with "Slumdog Millionaire," a fairy tale that is too grim and reality-based to work as such. The notion of Jamal thinking back to his personal experiences in order to answer the game show queries is intriguing, but the questions themselves are dull and it is particularly far-fetched to consider that they are asked of him in the chronological order that he learned them. Jamal's life as a 7-year-old and, later, as a 12-year-old, consists of eluding authorities, hiding out on trains, acting as faux tour guides at the Taj Mahal in order to swindle gullible tourists, and finally facing an even darker and more dangerous underbelly to the world around him. As brother Salim is seduced by the power of the gun, Jamal sets out to once again find Latika, who is being groomed as a prostitute named Cherry. When they cross paths again as 18-year-olds, Latika is in a situation that Jamal insists she should run away from, but doing just that could potentially sign her death warrant.
All of this describes the plot of film, but not the artifice with which it is treated. The suspense of the narrative is meant to be twofold, with the viewer rallying behind Jamal on the game show and wondering at the same time if he and Latika will end up together. The former plays out like an episode of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" (the use of the theme song to underscore certain scenes is a rare inspired choice that works), while the latter holds almost no weight. Jamal and Latika appear as if they might be content together, but the moments between them as children are underdeveloped and not soulful enough to sense a palpable human connection for the present-day material to work as it should. The ending, believe it or not, plays out almost exactly like the 2001 Lance Bass-Emmanuelle Chriqui romance "On the Line
," and the aforementioned musical number that closes the show seems at odds with the death, torture and heartache just witnessed in the previous two hours. Jamal and Latika deserve their happiness, but not in the way it is presented here.
"Slumdog Millionaire" will be praised as a crowd-pleaser in some circles, but the pieces do not form a cohesive, believable or satisfying whole. The film is shot with an alternating grit and beauty by Anthony Dod Mantle (2003's "Dogville
"), and the incorporation of hip-hop/pop song "Paper Planes" by M.I.A. into a montage sequence midway through is a success unto itself. The rest of the movie, unfortunately, is neither entertaining nor emotionally sound, each and every plot point either telegraphed or unnaturally manipulative. "Slumdog Millionaire" wants to send the viewer out singing a happy tune, tidily sweeping the somber and sinister sides of the story under the rug. It feels dishonest.