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'Slumdog Millionaire' shows glimmers of greatness

"Slumdog Millionaire" (R)

2 1/2 stars out of 4

For his entire career, English director Danny Boyle has made it a point to never repeat himself. In some ways, this is admirable; in others, it comes off as an unintended stunt. Alternating styles and hop scotching through movie genres doesn't make one a virtuoso or creatively flexible. In Boyle's case, it seems to be more out of boredom and verges on adult ADD.

"Slumdog Millionaire" is Boyle's stab at the edgy/romantic, art-house motif and often times it is brilliant. Presented wildly out of sequence, the film takes place over a two-decade stretch and close to half of it comes with subtitles. Easy and breezy it's not, but it will eventually reward patient viewers. The question is, do you want to be rewarded for slogging through a movie's challenging artistic hurdles or do you wish to simply enjoy it?

The "slumdog" portion of the title refers to the squalid, almost inhuman living conditions of the three leads (played throughout by close to a dozen performers). After witnessing their single mother's murder at the hands of religious extremists, Jamal and his older brother Salim do the best they can scrounging through trash heaps and landfills for daily sustenance until they're lured away by friendly faced thugs for the purpose of street hustling.

It is at this time the brothers first cross paths with fellow orphan Latika, who immediately grabs Jamal's attention. A daring escape from their handlers unfortunately splits them up and while Salim and Latika give it little thought (as they are pure survivalists) Jamal the dreamer develops tunnel vision and embarks on what could very well be an impassioned, yet futile wild goose chase.

Boyle and writer Simon Beaufoy (adapting the novel by Vikas Swarup) take the bold step of paralleling the main story with Jamal's appearance as a contestant on the Indian version of the "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" game show.

How the seemingly uneducated Jamal even got on the show is never made clear and what's even more perplexing is his ability to answer questions a book genius might find extremely daunting. The filmmakers are able to gloss over this temporarily by tying the questions into past events in Jamal's life, but after the third or fourth question, it starts feeling extremely calculated and beyond happenstance.

As the story gets closer to its unexpectedly thrilling finish, the questions on the show actually start getting easier, which pushes what is an already unorthodox fantasy premise into something off the charts, but not in a good way.

The solid performances by the adult actors playing Jamal and Latika are able to lend the production far more credibility than the story itself deserves and despite the loose, far-flung bits of erratic storytelling, make it all somewhat fathomable.

This is a movie that shows glimmers of greatness, but is ultimately sabotaged by daring, yet ultimately mismatched styles. The intent was perfect, but the execution was lost in the tiny details, and in the movies, tiny details are everything.

Presented in English and Hindi with frequent English subtitles. (Fox)