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TERRY GROSS, host:

Film director Danny Boyle made his name with the Edinburgh crime and drug thriller "Trainspotting." His other films include the big-budget Leonardo DiCaprio thriller "The Beach" and the zombie plague film "28 Days Later." His new film "Slumdog Millionaire" is set in India. It's about a poor 18-year-old orphan who goes on the Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: It's fascinating how the game show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" has captured the imagination of writers and artists all over the world, where it's a fixture in many languages. It promises easy money, of course. But something else gets under people's skin. The set and camera work are tacky, yet grandiose, the questions an unsettlingly fluky mix of history and pop culture ephemera. It's as if a mocking god has put fortune within reach and just out of it.

Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" is constructed around the Indian incarnation of the show, and borrows the ingenious premise, and not much else, from the novel "Q and A" by Vikas Swarup. A poor young man Jamal played by Dev Patel triumphs on television and is promptly arrested on the premise that he must have cheated. With constant flashbacks, Jamal explains to a cop, played by Irfan Khan, how he knew the answers, because each question, as if by fate, tied into some aspect of his tragic and tumultuous life.

Danny Boyle is a smashing director, and I mean that literally. He smashed cuts from shot to shot, scene to scene, chase to chase. Right from the start, he has us reeling. He leaps back and forth between Jamal and the game show hot seat, and Jamal in a different kind of hot seat, an interrogation room, getting his feet electrocuted with a battery.

I don't always trust Boyle. I feel the need to defend myself against an artist this slickly brutal, but he's a virtuoso among the best there is at a kind of kinetic film making. Even with all his arty lighting and tilted angles, he gives the action a headlong momentum. "Slumdog Millionaire" is his liveliest fusion of style and content since "Trainspotting."

Like the hero of that movie, Jamal is always on the run for his life. When he's little and his older brother, Salim, locks him in an outdoor latrine when his favorite film star is nearby, he drops through a pit of excrement and dashes for his hero's autograph. He and his brother run from rampaging Hindis, and then flee a despicable Fagan-like boss, whose cruelty is breathtaking. As each flashback ends, there's a corresponding game show question posed by a condescending emcee, played by the splendidly smarmy Anil Kapoor.

(Soundbite of movie "Slumdog Millionaire")

Mr. ANIL KAPOOR: (As Prem Kumar) Jamal Malik, you're absolutely right.

(Soundbite of crowd applauding and cheering)

Mr. DEV PATEL: (As Jamal Malik) It's getting hot in here. Ha.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PATEL: Are you nervous?

Mr. KAPOOR: What? Am I nervous? It's you who's in the hot seat, my friend.

Mr. PATEL: Yes. Sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAJENDRANATH ZUTHSHI: (As Director Raj Zutshi) Well yeah, he's got a player on the run.

Ms. JEBEVA TALWAR: (As Vision mixer) Finally.

Mr. KAPOOR: A few hours ago, he was giving chai to the (unintelligible). And now, you're richer than they will ever be. What a player. Ladies and Gentleman, what a player.

(Soundbite of applause)

EDELSTEIN: That emcee is the very devil, but Jamal's eyes are on a prize that transcends money, Latika, a girl who escaped his village after her family was killed, and whom he and his brother liberated from prostitution. Now, she's the kept woman of an abusive gangster. In her maturing coronation, she's played by Freida Pinto, and is impossibly model beautiful, And "Slumdog Millionaire" becomes more and more floridly romantic. The actors play it big. I get the feeling that when action is called in a Danny Boyle movie, they have to register emotion fast.

But Boyle has something up his sleeve. As the film grows less gritty and more formulaic, it also becomes more Bollywood. The colors pop out. The music swells. The morally ambivalent characters atone. It even ends with a big production number, a song and dance featuring the grown-up leads, as well as the little kids who played them in the earlier scenes. With its riches, romance and wondrous destiny, "Slumdog Millionaire" has an ingenious subtext. The capricious mocking god of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" has been kicked off screen by the god of Bollywood movie-making. It's irresistibly preposterous.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download podcast of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.

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