Field conditions: Seen at Plaza Cinemas at Chapel Hill. 5 p.m. Sunday show. Light attendance. Trailers preceding: "Defiance," "Last Chance Harvey," "Angels and Demons," "Revolutionary Road," "Wolverine."
"Slumdog Millionaire" has the trappings of the new -- set in modern India (with a great soundtrack by A.R. Rahman), and a cast of fresh faces topped by Dev Patel as Jamal Malik -- a clear and decidedly unromantic view of its setting, especially the poverty and brutality that are part of the characters' lives.
But it wraps that setting around an old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing story, the sort of thing where, as much as you may be sure of the ending, you still let loose a cheer when it happens. (In that respect, and in a couple of storytelling elements, it draws on the conventions of Bollywood, the glossy movies coming out of India.) The canny combination of new and old undoubtedly helped it to win big at the Golden Globes, and there's increasing talk that it will do very well at the Oscars. (Nominations come out Thursday, with the awards a month later.)
The basic story is that of Jamal, who has gone from being a "slumdog" growing up poor, exploited, sometimes criminal and mostly orphaned, to center stage on India's version of "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire." (The top prize is 20 million rupees, about $412,000.) As the movie begins, he has been winning on the show, and the police are interrogating him, convinced that he could not possibly have come up with the right answers without cheating. Through a series of flashbacks, we see not only why Jamal knew the answers, but what his life has been like, and about his love since childhood for Latika, a beautiful child of the streets.
The journey through Jamal's childhood is occasionally funny, and often harrowing. Survival is never easy. Survival without losing your soul is nearly impossible, as we see from the contrasting approaches to life of Jamal and his brother Salim. Even when Jamal gets his big chance, there is no guarantee that he will be given a fair shot; the "Millionaire" host, Prem Kumar, is especially suspicious of Jamal's progress.
But the movie is still visually rich, and very well acted. Anil Kapoor, who plays Prem, is especially impressive in conveying both televised charm, off-camera cynicism and the combination of the two; Prem is especially fond of mocking Jamal's job as a "chai wallah," serving tea. He reminded me more than a little of Richard Dawson on "Family Feud" (and maybe even more of Dawson in "The Running Man.")
Patel is also good, though it's a little tricky to evaluate his performance since our cumulative impression of Jamal is created not only by Patel but by Ayush Mahesh Khedekar and Tanay Chheda as Jamal when he is younger. (The directing is also somewhat split, with Loveleen Tandan credited as co-director in India to Danny Boyle.) All three are compelling, though.
It all moves well, especially with Rahman's music accompanying; after I got home from the movie, one of the first things I did was buy the soundtrack online. There's a certain obviousness to the script (written by Simon Beaufoy, from a novel by Vikas Swarup); a key moment near the end is telegraphed early on. But that's part of its old-fashioned charm. I didn't roll my eyes at the big reveal, just nodded happily. I wouldn't call it the best movie of the year, but it made me happy enough.