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At the Movies: Beggar’s Banquet: Slumdog Millionaire ****

Danny Boyle refuses to belong to any genre, and he delves into projects vastly different from one to the next. The heroin addicts in Trainspotting, the yuppies in Shallow Grave, the zombies in 28 Days Later, the motherless boys in Millions, the astronauts in Sunshine – Boyle is undaunted by unfamiliar territory, which is probably how he ended up with a bare bones camera team in the slums of Mumbai.

It’s debatable whether his latest, Slumdog Millionaire, is his best; he’s made so many films that could take that honor, but this film does leap to an entirely different level for Boyle – the wacky world of the Oscar race.

Slumdog has become one of the few films that seems like a sure bet for a Best Picture nomination, even though its director has never been anywhere near the race before. There are two reasons for Boyle’s current Oscar buzz. The first is that the film is being distributed by Fox Searchlight, the studio that brought Little Miss Sunshine and Juno out of the festival circuit and smack dab into the Best Picture race. The second reason is that Slumdog Millionaire is so full of life, so well directed, so wildly entertaining, how could it not be recognized as one of the year’s best?

Boyle, working with a script by Simon Beaufoy, based on Vikas Swarup’s novel Q&A, has taken a standard rags to riches story and reshaped it into one lucky bastard’s haphazard triumph over adversity, poverty, despair, and loneliness.

But Slumdog Millionaire is also a Bollywood movie in its framing. All that’s missing are the requisite song and dance numbers throughout. It contains many of the popular themes – the poor defeating the rich, true love, and a great big fat happy ending, above all else. The hero must be put through trial after trial and he must reach the point where he’s just about defeated but then, miraculously, he ascends.

That Boyle’s the director makes this film thrilling to watch, as he steers it away from the Bollywood trap; clearly, there are directors better suited to that genre, and Boyle can succeed by crossing cultures without making significant sacrifices.

The film follows the unbearable life of Jamal Malik, played by various actors at different points in his life, including Dev Patel. He is orphaned as a boy and survives by living in the dump, or the slums, with his brother. He meets another orphan, the beautiful Latika, and the three become a bonded unit. They are picked up by a group of men who take care of them but also exploit them for profit. Jamal escapes but he leaves Latika behind. His entire life is spent trying to get back to her.

The story begins and ends with Who Wants to be a Millionaire, India style. Jamal goes on the show and just happens to win question after question, this lands him in trouble with the police, who suspect he’s cheating. He must go through one question after another and in so doing relives every moment that brought him to the answer of the questions. A coincidence? A divine joke? Either way, Jamal is set up to get the girl, the gold watch, and everything. And we would expect nothing less. That doesn’t mean it’s too predictable to watch; it means that, for once, there is true joy to be had there, in the darkness.

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