The signature Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) treatment is given to the slums of India instead of Scotland this time around in a solidly entertaining and energizing film that nevertheless doesn’t quite warrant all the buzz it’s been enjoying here at the Toronto festival.
The nonstop, relentlessly pounding music, the wildly expressionistic visual angles and the seemingly cocaine-induced frenzy of a constantly moving camera — sometimes in slow motion, sometimes step-printed like a Wong Kar-wai film — are all still very present in his typical in-your-face manner and will continue to irritate viewers who like their movies a bit more sedate.
But the Indian angle — with the socioeconomic realities of that country complexly yet humorously represented — adds a new, different energy to the usual mix. Boyle also has been able to inject his trademark musical and visual pumped-up style with the alien but surprisingly adaptable energy of Bollywood spectacle, and it’s this refreshing combination that is the single best thing about the film.
But minus the artificially induced dynamism of this kinetic extravaganza, the film feels a bit thin in conception and execution. In fact, in many ways it’s just a good old-fashioned romance about star-crossed lovers caught between money and love.
Plus, what those wild camera movements usually are showing are the film’s many chase scenes that seem to pop up every few minutes whether you want them to or not. Commercial prospects should be healthy, however, and far better than those of most of the films Boyle has made since Trainspotting more than a decade ago.
The film revolves around the picaresque adventures of Jamal (Dev Patel) and his older brother, Salim, poor kids from Mumbai (“slumdogs”) who later team up with a beautiful young girl named Latika (Freida Pinto).
The death of their mother in a religious riot and their general struggle to survive as kids and young adults are intercut with Jamal’s present-day appearances on India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” as he inspires the impoverished of an entire nation when his improbable winning streak brings him closer and closer to the grand prize of 25 million rupees. His selfless goal is not the money but winning back Latika, the love of his life, who had disappeared years earlier and now lives with a wealthy gangster who also employs Salim.
What’s perhaps most fascinating about the film is Boyle’s relentless focus on the realities of present-day India as a vehicle for his spectacle and laughs. Thus, Jamal works for a while in one of those ubiquitous Indian call centers that Americans, at least, know all too well, gaining Boyle a few chuckles from Western audiences but also giving us more insight into these new global workplaces.
At other times, he documents — but always in an entertaining fashion — the eternal clash between high and low culture, the East and the West. If it’s really just adrenaline-boosting chase scenes and corny romance, Boyle also knows how to effortlessly slip in a welcome lesson in the multicultural realities of the present-day world.
Fox Searchlight. Production: Celador Films, Warner Bros., Film4
Cast: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Mahur Mittal, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan
Director: Danny Boyle
Screenwriter: Simon Beaufoy
Producer: Christian Colson
Director of photography: Anthony Dod Mantle
Production designer: Mark Digby
Editor: Chris Dickens
Music: A. R. Rahman
Sales: Pathe International
No rating, 120 minutes.