The shorthand description of Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire reads like a lark that could star Ashton Kutcher: Lovesick guy contends on a TV game show to impress the woman he's chasing. • Moments into this extraordinary film, any thoughts that Boyle made a run-of-the-smile romantic comedy are drowned out by the contestant's screams while being tortured by a Mumbai policeman. • Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is accused of cheating on India's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Nobody ever progressed beyond winning a few thousand rupees, yet Jamal is positioned to win millions. He is, as a superimposed multiple-choice question poses, lucky, a genius, a con man or a beneficiary of fate. • The correct, unwritten answer is actually E, all of the above, in ways stretching back to Jamal's childhood that Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy reveal in riveting detail. Slumdog Millionaire is a life told in three acts deftly weaved in flashbacks and uncanny generational casting, a conventional tale presented with astonishing originality.
By the time Jamal offers his final answer, viewers know his history, share his longings and can't resist hoping he'll win it all. Luck and fate should be so kind to Boyle's movie in post-year awards, since Slumdog Millionaire is 2008's finest cinematic achievement.
Like Jamal, Boyle seems to have unwittingly prepared for this moment his entire life: establishing a singular oeuvre with his 1996 breakthrough Trainspotting, stylishly failing with The Beach and A Life Less Ordinary, then reinventing genres with 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Millions.
Slumdog Millionaire contains elements of each, convincingly set in an environment that is alien to most viewers: the grime and crime of growing up orphaned in dense, desperate Mumbai, also known as Bombay. Jamal is a typical "slumdog," surviving by larceny, luck and pluck like Oliver Twist. The game show questions posed by a mocking host (Anil Kapoor) and a gradually sympathetic interrogation by a detective (Irfan Khan) miraculously mirror his memories.
We learn how bigotry left him motherless, how his brother Salim progressed from cagey urchin to mobster, and how he loves — and always loses — Latika, another orphan. The perfect casting of preteen, adolescent and adult actors in these roles — plus Chris Dickens' dynamic editing — makes singling out any performance impossible. They're each one played by several actors, always spot-on.
There's a rare vibrancy to Slumdog Millionaire, from its odd positioning of subtitles to the Bollywood optimism and music enlivening even its tragic episodes. As an Englishman, Boyle shares our outsider's wonderment of Mumbai's culture, compelled to capture it all through Anthony Dod Mantle's exquisite camerawork, from Jamal's squalid ghetto youth to modern Mumbai's opulence. Boyle teaches as much as he dramatizes, both in expert fashion.
Many films tell stories of underdogs, unrequited love and such, yet Slumdog Millionaire feels breathtakingly fresh, at times inexplicably so. Viewers are lucky, blessed or preordained to discover at least one movie like this in a lifetime.
The correct answer is D, all of the above.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com.