Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Slumdog Millionaire may be beautiful and compulsively watchable, but it's also fundamentally dishonest

From Danny Boyle, one of the liveliest and most worthwhile directors of recent years, comes this modern-day Balzac-ian rags-to-riches tale, a bright and shiny thing of almost no value whatsoever. In Slumdog Millionaire the slums of Paris are now the toxic entrails of a re-industrialized Mumbai, and the deus ex machina of the winning Parisian lottery ticket is an anti-statistical streak through Who Wants to Be a Rupee Millionaire? Come to think of it, who isn't a rupee millionaire? But let's not be churlish; with our hero's previous economic peak being a sojourn as assistant to a call-center operative—a position I'm praying is just lazy shorthand from the writers rather than a real job—it's all relative.

A hugely lovable Dev Patel—all big-eyed, shuffly awkwardness—plays Jamal Malik, child beggar turned big-time prospector. Sure enough, redemption for Jamal lies in the local variant of television's unaccountably popular mock-epic multiple-choice exam. As with any well-known brand encountered overseas, there is a brief, empty pleasure to be had in spotting and then pondering the microscopic cosmetic differences between the national variants of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? In India our host is a little more glittery and malicious, but otherwise it's business as usual from the franchise, I'm afraid. For the purposes of our young hopeful, however, the quiz show's soundstage is no less than a crucible in which he may forge for himself a personal facsimile of his nation's merciless economic Darwinism and call it a happy ending.

Yes, try as the world might, it simply cannot smack the decency out of this kid, although it has more luck with his big brother, a cynical tyke whose occasional acts of kindness—and final, slightly bewildering martyrdom—seem to come less naturally to him than shooting a gangster in the face, say, or deflowering a pre-teen. Inevitable as it seems, however, the destinies of the two brothers are inextricably linked, along with that of Jamal's long-lost and hard-fought-for love, Latika. The adult Latika is played by a delightfully toothsome Freida Pinto who, in contrast to Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar's spunky performance as her younger incarnation, isn't allowed to do much more than pine and take a bit of abuse.

Slumdog Millionaire is, at its best, a beautiful, warm-hearted adrenaline rush of life-affirming joy. It's hard to resist being swept along, but you really should try, not least since the story is as big a mountain of garbage as that sifted by the film's ghetto children in their daily quest for nutrients. The whole thing really is utter rot, its narrative depending on a sequence of coincidences that would make Thomas Hardy blush. Jamal discovers that every Millionaire question asked of him—wouldn't you know it?—can be answered by thinking back to a minor (and tragic) event in his heavily flashbacked past.

What's the message here? That love conquers all? Hardly, given the narrative handily bequeaths our hero a lifetime of relative riches. That honest labor will surely triumph, then? Err, not really, given the equally deserving multitudes Jamal simply turns his back on at the film's climax. Perhaps it's merely offering the idea that all we need is good luck. If this is the case, Slumdog Millionaire is the most philosophically bleak film I've ever seen—and I suspect that's not its intention. There's always the faintly crowbarred suggestion that Jamal only appeared on the show in the first place as a way of attracting the attentions of Latika, but any dignity this affords is neutered by his subsequent, unnecessary triumph. Surely even a Tin Cup-style Pyrrhic victory would have been more noble? Oh, Danny boy…

Come to think of it, didn't Boyle's Trainspotting, for all its edgy posturing, also end with a suitcase of money masquerading as spiritual catharsis? Yet as vacuous as it is, Slumdog Millionaire is never less than compulsively watchable. Ably served by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, Boyle unnervingly tilts his kaleidoscope at India's chaotic extremes, giving a texture that occasionally matches Meirelle's City of God.

Beautiful it may be, but there's something tricky and dishonest at the heart of this film. Much like the quiz show Jamal unrealistically and effortlessly breezes his way through, Slumdog Millionaire's answers are just too easy.