Friday, November 21, 2008
A feel-good movie set in the slums
The thing about "Slumdog Millionaire" -- Danny Boyle's exuberant romp through the teeming streets and alleys of Mumbai -- is this: Boyle mixes hard-core realism and with fairy-tale logic, and somehow manages to catapult his impoverished hero toward a happy ending. Better yet, he carries us along with him. Boyle's spirited treatment of his young characters, the remarkable gloss of his imagery and the sheer audacity of a plot that defies belief could all be turnoffs. But instead of allowing contrivances to push us out of his story, Boyle uses them to push us through, sweeping us along as if we had little choice in the matter. That's what can happen when a filmmaker has complete control over his material.
The conceit is pure and silly: Young Jamal finds himself a contestant on the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?" As the show progresses, the movie reveals how Jamal may have obtained the knowledge that allows him to move toward the show's highest realms of achievement. He's the ultimate graduate of the school of hard knocks.
From the set of the game show, Boyle flashes back to Jamal's youth. He tells us how Jamal and his brother, Salim, were orphaned; he introduces Jamal to Latika, the girl who will grow into the woman to whom Jamal is endlessly devoted. The story careens through events that are part Dickens, part Rocky, part travelogue and part Bollywood. Scenes at the Taj Mahal are appropriately gorgeous; scenes in the slums of Mumbai are less so.
Gorgeous or gritty, Boyle infuses every scene with the energy of a chase sequence; "Slumdog Millionaire" can look busy even when it's standing still, and for me at least, the movie overwhelmed any reservations I might have had -- not about its depiction of poverty -- but about the way it maintains a melodramatic spirit in the face of a host of reasons to speak in a different voice.
Simon Beaufoy's script -- based on a novel by Vikas Swarup -- seems to delight in its own ebullience. It's as if both Boyle and Beaufoy, best known for his screenplay for the "Full Monty," have allowed the complex stimulation of India to overwhelm and then guide them. Although some of the developments in "Slumdog" are appalling, the irrepressible spirit of its characters prevails, giving the film a driving, palpable energy.
The young actors are all remarkable, and Dev Patel, who plays the adult Jamal, never seems totally disconnected from his character's youthful past. Anil Kapoor portrays the game show host who alternately taunts and encourages Jamal, and Irfan Khan appears as a police inspector who, at one point, interrogates young Jamal. The adult Latika is portrayed by Freida Pinto, a model whose lack of acting experience does not show -- or maybe it doesn't matter because "Slumdog" isn't built around performance, but around the breadth of its story and the boldness of its ploys, which ultimately resolve into two love stories, one between brothers; the other between Jamal and Latika.
When you leave the theater, you can look back and determine how Boyle has managed to turn so much poverty, suffering and degradation into a feel-good experience. I wouldn't have thought it possible. Even as I watched the movie, I didn't think Boyle would pull it off, and I wondered whether the movie's finale would payoff our emotional investment. It does. That may be because Boyle, who brought a similar vigor to "Trainspotting," knows he has two leads in his movie: Jamal and Mumbai. The combination proves irresistible.
SHE HAS A PAST -- AND IT'S NOT PRETTY
"I've Loved You So Long" might be one of the few French movies that suffers from too little ambiguity. Director Philippe Claudel's quietly powerful story begins when a woman (Kristin Scott Thomas acting in French) is released from prison. She moves in with the sister (Elisa Zylberstein) she hasn't seen for years. Her brother-in-law (Serge Hazanavicius) is troubled by her arrival. Who wouldn't be? Thomas' character served 15 years in jail for murdering her young son. There's plenty of tension as Thomas' Juilette warily adjusts to her new freedom, but the movie's ending -- which answers all our questions -- proves deflating. Part of me simply didn't want to know why Juliette killed her son. I'm not sure I totally would have embraced a less explanatory ending, either. That might have led me to complain about the movie's lack of cathartic satisfaction, thus proving that there's no pleasing some people. Still, "I've Loved You So Long" boasts some fine acting with a deglamorized Thomas memorably leading the way.