This year, I did something I’ve never done before: I managed to watch all five films that re nominated for the Best Picture Oscar prior to the actual ceremony. I think I was able to do that because all five films are still playing in theaters around here, unlike most years where at least one or two of the nominated titles are in that limbo between the theaters and DVD by the time the Oscars come around.
Anyway, the ceremony will be held this Sunday, February 22, and I saw Slumdog Millionaire, my fifth and final nominee last night. This film has received most of the Oscar buzz as far as Best Picture goes, so I was looking forward to watching it. Unfortunately, while it was indeed good, I didn’t think it lived up to all the hype.
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): The film opens with a young Indian man named Jamal (played by Dev Patel) being beaten by a security guard. Jamal has been on the Indian version of the TV game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and is one question away from winning the top prize of 20,000,000 rupees. But since Jamal is an uneducated boy from the Dharavi slums, the game show’s producers think that he must have somehow cheated. After all, doctors, lawyers, and university professors have all failed to win the top prize. How can this “slumdog” do it? Thus, they are now trying to beat a confession out of Jamal.
But Jamal steadfastly proclaims his innocence, saying that he really does know the answers. So then a police inspector (Irrfan Khan) takes over the interrogation, going through the video of the game show question by question to find out how Jamal knew the answers.
The film then flashes back to Jamal’s childhood in the slums with his brother Salim (young version played by Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail) and their mother (Sanchita Choudhary). These early days yielded the answers to two questions asked on the game show — including one that came about as the result of Jamal’s mother’s brutal murder.
The rest of the film is told in much the same way, as the viewer follows Jamal and Salim through childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood while they navigate the streets and slums of Mumbai in an effort to survive without parents. Along the way, they befriend a similarly orphaned girl named Latika (youngest version played by Rubiana Ali), who ultimately turns out to be the love of Jamal’s life, and have a bunch of wild adventures, all of which help Jamal win the 20 million rupees and show that he did indeed know the answers after all.
My Reaction: As I said, I thought Slumdog Millionaire was good, but not great. It was so utterly Dickensian in nature that I couldn’t help but have my mind drift back to Oliver Twist more times than I care to remember — especially during the time where Jamal, Salim, and Latika were begging for that modern-day Fagin. So while the overall structure of having Jamal’s life experiences laying the foundation for his success on the game show was pretty unique (albeit completely unrealistic), the actual retelling of those experiences seemed like little more than a Dickens ripoff.
Nevertheless, the story as a whole flowed pretty well, so I was able to enjoy most of it. There were a few slow spots to be sure, as well as some highly predictable ones, but it wasn’t too bad for a two-hour long film. Plus, the main character Jamal was pretty likable (except for when he was actually on the game show… couldn’t he smile or something? I know he was nervous, but still. He came off as just as antagonistic as that annoying host.), which was important given the fact that we were meant to root for him in the end. I was happy that he won and happy that he got the girl, so mission accomplished in that regard.
Overall, however, I felt that there was just something missing from Slumdog Millionaire that prevented it from being a complete winner for me. I can’t quite put my finger on it; maybe it was a bunch of niggling little things that bothered me throughout. At any rate, I give the film 4 stars out of 5 and still think it’s worth watching despite its flaws.