Slumdog Millionaire is is a supremely silly film that makes a preposterous melodrama more engaging than it has rights to be. I found the film both ridiculous and engaging. It was fun in many of the right places, heavy handed in a few other places, and visually arresting. For the cinematography alone I'm glad I (finally) saw it on the big screen rather than on a TV.
Aside from the brutality of the police interrogation scenes at the top, which feels utterly forced and unbelievable, the narrative structure of the film works well. 18 year-old Jamal is being questioned by the police under suspicion of cheating on an improbable live-aired Indian version of Who Want to Be A Millionaire? The police interrogator asks him how he knew the answer to each question on the show, and, in flashback, we are shown, answer for answer, how uneducated "slumdog" Jamal learned each nugget of information: starting with who was India's biggest star in the 70s to which face appears on an American $100 bill, and so on. As such, the film jumps from the interrogation, back to the game-show, and back to Jamal's past. Conveniently enough, the answers were learned in his life in the order the questions are given, so the flashbacks are in chronological order. This is a narrative conceit that works only because it seems as if all of this is fate or destiny. It's a clever gimmick, and a well done use of flashback to show the sweep of Jamal's life.
Through the flashbacks Jamal's life story is played out, and we're shown how he and his opportunistic brother Salim were raised in a Muslim slum in Mumbai, how they lost their mother, and how they were on their own from a tender age until adulthood, learning to make their way on the mean streets.
It also tells how they met Latika, a girl orphaned as they were, and whom they are separated from. It's Jamal's need to find her again and again that drives his character, it's why he goes on the Millionaire show.
That last bit, unfortunately, is where the film doesn't work for me.
Jamal's need to find Latika feels unmotivated. The film doesn't make us feel they are star crossed lovers, or even that they share a bond. It's the classic tell not show problem. Latika has barely any dialog is the film. Even when they meet as children, and live together for a time, there's nothing portrayed on screen that made me understand why Jamal would become so obsessed with finding her. Oh, I could theorize on the psychology, but the film never made me feel what was driving Jamal. Latika is beautiful and tragic and she's been through a lot, yes, but she's a cipher, and cipher's aren't engaging. As such, the central love story just didn't hold together. It felt like the thinnest, ill defined thread, and didn't touch me at all. None of the actors of playing these characters over three different ages had any on-screem chemistry, which further undermines the romance.
On the other hand I thought the children playing the young versions of Jamal and Salim were wonderful, and I found them very engaging. They were very natural and charaismatic. I laughed at their more playful antics many times during the film. Sadly, the same can't be said for the adults playing them, who seemed like entirely different characters. Adult Jamal (Dev Patel) looks blank and shell shocked most of the time, and adult Salim is just boring.
The film's depiction of the squalor of Mumbai is both appalling and superficial. We see poor children racing through the slums, and a few flashes of the inhabitants, but nothing lasting or engaging. The film shows us great vistas of shacks and shanties, and masses of women doing laundry in 3rd world conditions, but it's all at a distance.
Finally, the Bollywood musical ending at the credits felt disingenuous. This is a very western film, despite its Indian trappings, and what with the product-placement like reliance on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? As such, the inclusion of a Bollywood song and dance routine at the finish felt like the film was taking on the mantle of something it's not. It felt obligatory and calculated rather than an actual homage.
So, in summary, I enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire, but there's no way this film deserved all its awards and accolades. It's definitely worth watching, but it's no masterpiece.