Right now I'm kind of loving Slumdog Millionaire, though I didn't when I walked out of it. Immediately post-credits, my reaction was mixed: As a frantic, decade-spanning melodrama/romance/comedy that tries to be about everything—poverty, money, fame, crime, the media, politics, religion, sex, history, globalization, love—the latest from director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Sunshine) is nothing if not overwhelming.
Sometimes Slumdog feels crassly exploitative—like a guilt-inducing parade of everything terrible that impoverished children in peril have to endure—but often it's nothing short of fucking exhilarating, a pounding, pulsing, urgent rush that jumpstarts endorphins and adrenalin. There are scenes of torture and abuse and murder alongside giddy triumphs of comedy and heart (not to mention a Bollywood-inspired dance number), and as Slumdog careens along as both a harsh drama and a hammy crowd-pleaser, it's tempting to write it off as a bit of not-particularly-subtle manipulation. But ultimately, one realizes that Boyle deeply cares about these characters—and that sympathetic core is the reason why Slumdog Millionaire is consistently, utterly, beautifully gripping. I might've left Slumdog feeling a bit torn, but now, a few days later, I can't wait to see the thing again.
It begins with a bang: Teenager Jamal has been kicking some serious ass on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? In fact, he's kicking a little too much ass: Despite being a lowly call center worker who grew up in a Mumbai slum, Jamal is somehow getting all of the show's obscure questions right. As Jamal's hauled in by suspicious police for questioning, one detective wonders, "What the hell can a slumdog actually know?" "The answers," Jamal replies, and then—via a series of flashbacks—we discover how he's come to know them.
Cutting back and forth in time, we learn how Jamal grew up with his brother, Salim, in squalid, dangerous slums, and how the two found Latika, a girl who Jamal's been in love with ever since. We witness Jamal playing, fleeing from a brutal pogrom, getting sucked into a sordid stretch of slavery, and butting heads with Salim; as Slumdog skips around the years, the film's three main characters are played by no fewer than three actors each. (The acting is excellent across the board, but it's most notable with the oldest versions of Jamal, Latika, and Salim, played by Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, and Madhur Mittal.) While Slumdog's narrative might be too fantastic to ever be truly believable, it is, as one character dryly puts it, "bizarrely plausible"—based on Vikas Swarup's novel Q and A (and adapted by The Full Monty screenwriter Simon Beaufoy), Slumdog never feels totally real, but there's always enough intensely emotional truth to grasp onto.
The credit for how remarkably engaging Slumdog is goes to Boyle, who's at the top of his game. If Wes Anderson used The Darjeeling Limited to make India look like a friendly, benignly exotic Disneyland, Boyle uses Slumdog to do the opposite—while never sacrificing the beauty of the country, his film also never shies away from its danger, poverty, and ugliness. But as frequently as the film is painful to watch, it's a thrill to experience: Deftly splicing together stunning colors, heartfelt sentiment, and a brilliant, addictive, thumping score from Indian film composer A.R. Rahman and M.I.A., Boyle nails a contagious sense of euphoria that he hasn't conveyed since the headiest moments of Trainspotting. Somewhere amid the husks of India's crumbling ruins and shining new towers, and somewhere between Jamal's desperate bids for survival and his steadfast belief in love, Boyle tells a familiar but gripping story—one that owes no small debt to Cinderella, true, but also one that feels dramatic, modern, rich, and vibrant in the ways that only the best cinema can.