Saturday, December 20, 2008

From Rags to Rajah

Bzzz! Bzzzz! Bzzz!

Do you hear that? It's the sound of of an Oscar Buzz in the wild. The Buzzes start issuing their distinctive mating calls every year around this time. But the question always remains: do the movies Oscar buzzes about merit the murmur? Or even a barely audible hum? Or just a long, groaning yawn?

Only one way to find out. In the weeks to come you will see very little of me out in the world, for I shall be hunkered down in the dark, lurking in the theater seats in the darkness of my local multipexes (multiplices?), emerging only long enough to post my findings on these buzzed-about films right here for Pop Culture America.

One such film is ...

Slumdog Millionaire (d. Danny Boyle)

Indulge me for a moment. Lift your eyes away from the computational contraption and take a quick scan of your surroundings. Think about where you are right now, not just in terms of your immediate environs, but on a larger map. On a globe, perhaps.

How did you get here? What was the path? How many different times during your journey along that path could things have turned out differently? What nearly impossible combination of decisions and circumstances carried you to this place at this time?

Now imagine that your entire voyage was reflected back at you in an even more unlikely setting, like on a TV show, for instance.

Freaky, huh?

That's the situation where young Jamal Malik finds himself in the course of Danny Boyle's new film Slumdog Millionaire. He has beaten the astronomical odds to wrangle a place in the hot seat of the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," somehow edging out millions of other would-be contestants, and as if that wasn't utterly, absurdly improbable enough, he also finds himself having gained through the course of his (relatively) short life exactly the knowledge base he needs to excel on this particular episode of this particular program.

Jamal is by no means a genius. He has no formal education to speak of. He's a "slumdog," a kid from the poorest areas of Mumbai, India; he has spent his childhood scrambling just to stay alive, begging in the streets, conning tourists, stealing, even doing honest work once in awhile. Whatever it takes.

Even with his native industry and street-smarts, he probably couldn't have made it without the two most important people in his life. His brother Salim watches out for Jamal and shields him from the harshest choices needed to survive in such a harsh place. Eventually making those harsh choices will lead Salim down his own improbable path as he becomes a functionary for one of the city's top crime bosses.

And then there's Latika, a lovely girl orphaned just as Jamal and Salim have been. The boys share a sheltered space with her during a deluge and Jamal falls hopelessly in love. That love will eventually be the prime driving force that lands him on the shiny chrome set of India's number one game show.

As the questions come, one after the other, the prize money doubling with each new challenge, Jamal hearkens back to the moments in his life that burned the knowledge into his brain. Sometimes the memories are sweet anecdotes, like when a question about a Bollywood star reminds him of the time he went to extraordinary lengths to obtain the actor's autograph. Sometimes the memories are too painful to bear, recalling the death of his mother at the hands of religious zealots who just happened to brandish exactly the symbol mentioned in the game show question.

Jamal and Latika are portrayed by Dev Patel and Freida Pinto. Neither has ever appeared in an American release before. Both are fresh-faced and open enough to embrace the impossibilities that flow through this story. More seasoned actors might have made it all look ridiculous rather than sublimely unique. These two leads are just right.

All the rest of the cast acquit themselves with aplomb, especially Anil Kapoor, who exudes a snaky charm as the Indian Regis Philbin. He wants a good show, but maybe not too good. As Jamal continues to answer question after question, he becomes convinced that there might be something more than the boy's native intelligence helping him along the way.

Slumdog Millionaire is director Danny Boyle's finest film since his triumph over a decade ago with Trainspotting. It's good to see him return to form after missteps like A Life Less Ordinary and last year's turgid Sunshine.

We've seen the tale of an unlikely life lived and the people it has touched along the way before. Whether it was the path taken by George Bailey or T.S. Garp or Forrest Gump, it's always remarkable to look back and discover how much has been done, how many lives have been touched along the way, how utterly impossible it has all been. Add Jamal Malik to that list.

And while you're at it, add your own name. And mine too. Impossible journeys, all.

4 stars.

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