Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" is trying very hard to be a Dickensian fable for our time. Eighteen-year-old Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a poor kid from Mumbai (Bombay), has correctly answered every question put to him on the local version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." With the ultimate prize of 20 million rupees in sight, he's taken into custody by the police, who believe he is cheating. They torture him, in vain, to elicit a confession. In flashbacks to his squalid childhood and beyond, we see just how Jamal learned those answers – through the school of hard knocks.
It's a fanciful contrivance, since Jamal is no genius. But it works – up to a point. I can accept a lot in a movie if it's aiming high, but Boyle and his screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, adapting a novel by Vikas Swarup, are very slick filmmakers. It's no accident that the film's closing credits are capped with a Bollywood-ish music video featuring most of the cast. The entire film has the glibness of a music video. Boyle has managed to make dire poverty seem glossy.
At times he's so carried away by the excitement of shooting in India that the film resembles a high-speed travelogue (albeit better shot than most). There are some very funny scenes, such as the one in which Jamal (who is played by three different actors at three stages in his life) cons tourists at the Taj Mahal. His partner in crime is his brother Salim (played as an adult by Madhur Mittal), who, unlike Jamal, is a born crook. The stark divergence of the brothers' lives is intended to mirror India's warring soul, but it looked pretty rote to me. And Salim's thuggish existence seems to owe as much to De Palma's "Scarface" as it does to the streets of Mumbai.
Boyle milks the on-the-edge-of-your-seat hype of the "Millionaire" TV show, but, in a way, he's just as coercive. He really fans the flame that Jamal carries for his childhood sweetheart Latika, who grows into a beautiful but mobbed-up maiden (Freida Pinto). This starry-eyed stuff always works best when the director isn't throwing stardust in our eyes.
"Slumdog Millionaire" is a crowd pleaser. I know, because I've seen it twice with crowds. But hitting all the high notes isn't such a crowning achievement if it's the same old song. Grade: B- (Rated R for some violence, disturbing images, and language.)