Danny Boyle is the most versatile director working today. In the past decade or so, he has helmed "Trainspotting," "28 Days Later" and "Sunshine," three films most critics would label as among the best of their genres (the drug flick, the zombie flick and the intellectual science-fiction flick, respectively).
To that list you can add "Slumdog Millionaire" and the Dickensian coming-of-age story.
"Slumdog Millionaire" focuses on the rise of Bombay street urchins Jamal and Salim, seen through the prism of the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Or maybe it's the story of Jamal and his quest to reunite with Latika, the pretty girl the brothers abandoned to a life of degradation and abasement at the hands of an Indian Fagin. Or maybe it's a story of class struggle, of modern riches clashing with ancient poverty.
In reality, it's all three. "Slumdog Millionaire" immerses the audience in an alien landscape and shows it through the eyes of a young man fighting against history and his own culture's expectations. If that sounds heavy, don't worry; Mr. Boyle's picture has a great sense of humor and knows just when to ratchet down the level of intensity.
The movie opens with Jamal (Dev Patel) in a police station undergoing an "enhanced interrogation" at the hands of a corpulent inspector. We learn that Jamal spent the previous evening climbing up the prize ladder on India's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and is under suspicion of cheating for no other reason than that he got the answers right. No slumdog should know what he knows.
However, as we see in a series of flashbacks to Jamal and Salim's adolescence, the answer to every question yields an insight into the progress of the duo's life. It's a clever conceit, one pulled off with surprising believability - the number of coincidences needed to make the story work is astronomical.
Fair warning: Portions of the film are in Hindi. This is a movie that, at times, has to be read. These aren't your father's subtitles, however; Mr. Boyle has crafted a stylized captioning process that is both easy to read and attractive to see. Instead of a constant scrolling line at the bottom of the screen, sentences are encased within colored boxes and placed near characters' mouths.
The effect is closer to a comic book than an art-house film. Such a statement usually would be a backhanded compliment at best, but that's not the case here - the captioning process is in line with the playful attitude of Mr. Boyle's film. (Speaking of the playful attitude, be sure to stick around for the closing credits and the fantastic Bollywoodesque dance-off that ends the film.)
The actors are, for the most part, unknown to Western audiences, but they almost uniformly impress. The brothers and Latika are all portrayed by a trio of actors - one set of children, one set of teens, one set of young adults. Their interactions add an extra layer of humanity to a sometimes brutal existence.
Although sure to get lost in the riptide of the "Quantum of Solace" opening on Friday, "Slumdog Millionaire" is a touching, feel-good flick worth seeking out at the multiplex.
TITLE: "Slumdog Millionaire"
RATING: R (Some violence, disturbing images and language)
CREDITS: Directed by Danny Boyle, co-directed by Loveleen Tandan. Written by Simon Beaufoy.
RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes
WEB SITE: www.foxsearchlight.com/slumdogmillionaire
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS