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ONCE IN A LIFELINE
Underdog fantasy prizes pennies from heaven

Slumdog Millionaire

Rated:R
Studio:Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director:Danny Boyle, Loveleen Tandan
Cast:Dev Patel, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, Madhur Mittal, Freida Pinto
Genre:Comedy, Drama, Foreign
Our Rating:

In 1994, Robert Redford’s underappreciated Quiz Show used TV game shows as a metaphor for the duplicity with which our system bolsters those who fit the “winner” profile. Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire sets up a converse scenario: What happens when fortune threatens to deliver the big prize to someone who was never supposed to succeed?

At first, the answer appears to be: “Police subject him to brutal electroshock treatments.” This is the reward afforded Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a young man who has been arrested in the midst of an unprecedented winning streak on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The cops can’t believe Jamal is on the up-and-up; how could so many right answers to such a potpourri of questions tumble from the mouth of a poor, uneducated nobody whose highest station in life entails slinging chai to the workers of a Mumbai call center?

The answers are revealed in flashback, as Jamal unspools his autobiography for the increasingly fascinated authorities. Luck, it seems, has shined on the lad: Every question he received while in the Millionaire chair was in some way related to a key development in his hardscrabble life. Orphaned violently, he went on to endure harrowing episodes of gangster gunplay, familial betrayal and lost love, and even a close call with juvenile blinding. If this is the sort of gauntlet one must run to excel on an innocuous Indian trivia program, God knows what they could do with Fear Factor.

The station-house inquisition, the Millionaire scenes and Jamal’s kinetically squalid backstory all play out in thrilling parallel. The film never slows from its crowd-pleasing pace, and director Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) furthers the theme of socioeconomic insurrectionism with a grimy authenticity that makes no obvious concessions to the Western audience.

But any viewer anywhere could latch onto the personal elements of the story, namely Jamal’s complicated relationships with his far less virtuous older brother and (pivotally) the proverbial girl who got away — three separate times. (Three sets of actors play these main characters at various ages.)

The entire affair is so entertaining, in fact, you almost don’t notice that the movie ultimately has nothing to say — just a helluva way of saying it. For all of its dalliances with harsh reality, Slumdog Millionaire is like a cheerful minimum-wager grasping a lottery ticket: intimately acquainted with deprivation yet eternally in love with winning. Winning money? Winning at life? Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (adapting Vikas Swarup’s novel into another up-by-your-bootstraps fantasia like Beaufoy’s The Full Monty and Blow Dry) draws no real distinction between the two.

Whereas Quiz Show saw capitalism as a rigged game, this new film thrives on the enduring hope that happiness and riches will rain down on anyone who suffers enough for them. Whether the coming years render that notion a pleasant depression-era panacea or just a sick joke remains to be seen.

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