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Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire
2008, Danny Boyle

A. He Cheated
B. He is Lucky
C. He is a Genius

D. It is Written

Winning, well-made crowdpleaser with a clever framing device and a character you root for from beginning to end. The U.K. hit gameshow "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" was exported all around the world, from America to Argentina, from Hong Kong to Hungary, from Finland to the Philippines - over a hundred different countries. If it's not universal it is certainly planetary. Therefore we all probably know the format: contestant answers random multiple-choice trivia questions, doubling their money for each correct answer, until either the top prize amount is won, the contestant gets one wrong, or they walk away with the cash they've accumulated rather than continue. Slumdog Millionaire is a sort of romantic fantasy about one young man's chance on the Indian version of the show.

The contestant is a young man named Jamal. Through a sort of double flashback technique we see an intense Police interrogation where they believe he has committed fraud to get correct answers on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire", the evening of the show itself, and back to various points in his life where we see how he gained the knowledge for each of the questions fate has given him for cash money. Even though he has little formal education we see how this orphaned boy who spent most of his life on the dirty streets of Bombay in the 1970s and '80s living by his wits and minor crimes and then the Mumbai of the 21st century, how living through just the right experiences he could know the handful of answers he needs to keep advancing. We also learn of his relationship with his older brother, Salim, and the love of his life, another child of the streets named Latika.

I found the first half of the movie the strongest, with the interrogation, led by Irfan Khan, and the earliest years the boys spent in the slums and fending for themselves. In the second half when the larger plot machinations take over and it drives to its pleasant if pretty predictable and probably too-neat conclusion, I longed to be back with the smaller children and the station house. But the finale is satisfying if unsurprising, and there's a great CODA for the end credits that's sure to leave you with a smile on your face.

The actors are all good, especially Dev Patel who plays the present-day Jamal and Ayush Mahesh Khedekar who plays the character at his youngest points. I also liked Anil Kapoor, who plays the TV host, but there aren't really any bad performances in the whole flick. Director Danny Boyle, who seems to be determined to change his subject matter from project to project (the zombieish thriller 28 Days Later... to the gentle if sitcomy UK child fantasy Millions to the brooding philosophical Sci-Fi of Sunshine and now to Slumdog) mixes his visual style well with the various time periods and locations and adeptly juggles the tone between comedy and drama.

I wish the second half would have been as good as the first, but it's still a fun, feel-good cinematic ride.