That’s assuming, of course, that you think underdog crowd-pleasers actually work with a gritty undercurrent. Slumdog Millionaire wants you to invest in the picaresque life story of a Mumbai, India, street kid as though he represents something about harsh reality, even as the film whisks viewers into a fantasy so credulity-straining that it could only exist in a writer’s imagination. It wants to be taken seriously—but only when it’s convenient.n
At first the framework—adapted by screenwriter Simon Beaufoy from a novel by Vikas Swarup—seems like a slick bit of business. Jamal Malik (Dev Patel)—a chaiwalla (tea-server) at a Mumbai telemarketing center—is one question away from the jackpot on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? But no one believes that this uneducated boy could actually know all the answers on his own, so he’s taken in for interrogation by a police detective (Irfan Khan) under suspicion of fraud. The story then unfolds in a combination of flashback and footage of the game show, explaining the life circumstances that led a slum-raised orphan to have so many obscure facts at his fingertips.n
As it plays out, Jamal hits the kind of luck previously experienced only on the episode of Cheers when blowhard mailman Cliff Clavin was a contestant on Jeopardy! and wound up with categories like “Bar Trivia” and “Stamps from Around the World.” Jamal knows who performed a certain popular Indian song because of his experience working for a Fagin-like wrangler of street beggars; ditto for knowing whose face is on the American $100 bill. With amazing chronological specificity, the harder answers come from experiences as he grows to adolescence and adulthood—including the staggering good fortune that Jamal could name the inventor of the revolver just because his brother once pointed one at him.
Yes, yes, of course it’s all a fairy tale. That’s what you have to keep telling yourself as the improbabilities mount, including on-air behavior by the game-show’s host (Anil Kapoor, in a generally satisfying performance of smug superiority) that wouldn’t happen on any game show, anywhere in the world, ever. Yet this is a “fairy tale” in which you find the hero tortured and hooked up to a car battery within the first five minutes, and in which his mother is murdered during an anti-Muslim riot, and where children are intentionally blinded in order to make them more pitiable (and effective) beggars. There’s something distasteful about the way Beaufoy and Boyle try to score emotional points with brutal reality, only to toss it out the window whenever pure dramatic invention is required to push the plot forward.n
And then there’s the romance. Or more specifically, there’s the idea of romance, as Jamal spends the entire film—and his entire life—finding and losing and finding and losing Latika (Freida Pinto), the girl of his dreams. Despite becoming a prostitute of various kinds over the space of a decade, Latika remains a shining beacon of purity in Jamal’s eyes, which is kind of sweet except that we never actually see the real street life that would have turned Latika into a hollowed-out shell of a woman. She’s never a genuine character; she’s a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold fantasy transferred to an exotic location, and no amount of exuberant Bollywood-style dancing over the closing credits can make this love story feel authentic.n
Maybe all of this nonsense has captivated viewers and critics because Boyle remains a filmmaker whose propulsive visual style blurs the edges of ridiculous concepts for easier consumption (see: 28 Days Later). Maybe folks are willing to overlook a lot when it comes in the service of an underdog tale served up with a hint of curry. But at its core, Slumdog Millionaire is a particularly lazy kind of filmmaking, one that assumes all of its feel-good flourishes will make everyone who points out its fundamental dishonesty seem like a heartless bastard. When Jamal gets an insanely simple final question—one that you could have predicted from the 40-minute mark, and one that doesn’t even have four challenging multiple choices—he doesn’t even have a good reason for the answer he chooses. He guesses.n
You could call that a fairy tale. Or you could call it dumb.n
nDev Patel, Anil Kapoor, Irfan Khan