There really is no backlash when it comes to “Slumdog Millionaire,” the best bet to take home the best picture Academy Award next Sunday. It’s all front lash with this one. By design it offers something for everybody. It does everything for you but shine your shoes. Last fall’s Mumbai terrorist attacks lent the film an unplanned dose of topicality, and even though the (terrific) train platform dance number that closes the picture was the site of real-life bloodshed, the human-spirit triumphalism rules.
A lot of other people don’t love it, to be sure, particularly those living in poverty in India and especially Mumbai, where much of the film takes place. Those who have seen it, and some who haven’t, focus their rancor on the madly colorful depiction of the slums, the use of the word “slumdog” in the title, the so-called poverty porn of its irrationally exuberant images, the air of fairy-tale unreality applied to real-life socioeconomic pain.
Truth, fiction face off — and 'Slumdog' will likely take the lead
What surprises me is how some folks react when you tell them you liked the film. Not loved it; liked it. No Top 10, or even Top 20. A good time that pummels your resistance into powder.
I’ve been met with some actual sputtering when I tell someone I like the “Slumdog” but don’t love it. “Whaaa - can’tyouseehow - ImeantheCOLORS - rollercoasterride - that’swhyIgotothemovies - geez ... can’tbelieveyou’ LIKED’itbutdidn’tADOREit - whatkindofperson AREyou ...” That’s how the conversation usually starts.
Then I try to convince the person I am not on the same moral plane as Richard Nixon, or Kate Winslet’s ex-concentration camp guard in “The Reader.”
All five best picture nominees this year are tall tales, struggling to resolve the tension between pulp fiction (or a more palatable brand of intelligent escapism) and harsh reality.
Director Danny Boyle has described his “Slumdog Millionaire” as a “picaresque,” part thriller, part romance, part comedy. It sends you home feeling like a million rupees, never mind the scenes of child torture and police brutality.
For a film enthralled with fantastic coincidence and predestined happy endings, “Slumdog Millionaire” didn’t look so good for a while there. Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, who made bales and bales of hay with “The Full Monty,” adapted the novel “Q & A” by Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup. Boyle shot it for $15 million, working with the superb cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. Warner Independent, a distribution arm of Warner Brothers, picked it up. Then Warners shut down its specialty divisions, and the film, as they say, was in play.
It nearly slid straight to a DVD release, bypassing the theaters altogether. Then Fox Searchlight - having done extraordinarily well a year earlier by another modestly budgeted indie fairy tale, “Juno” - acquired the title, which had already made a name for itself on the North American festival circuit. Look at it now. A global triumph.
Its only real competition at next Sunday’s Oscars is “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a fairy tale about the wonders of digitized period re-creation, starring the dubiously nominated Brad Pitt.
Two of the best picture nominees are political tall tales based on recent history. A recent piece in Weekly Variety suggested “Frost/Nixon” had as its closest Oscar-winning equivalent “All the King’s Men.” I’d say it’s closer in spirit to a later Oscar nominee: “The King and I.” Think about it: the story of a foreigner insinuating himself into the good graces of a very powerful man. For a brief moment in time, after delicate negotiations, they agree to dance together. Surely no film dealing in any way with Nixon will ever come closer to ending with the tonal equivalent of: And he lived happily ever after.
Like “Frost/Nixon,” director Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” can be accused of sanding down some of its subject’s more interesting rough edges. Yet this biopic, which will send Sean Penn home next Sunday with his second Academy Award if presumptive front-runner Mickey Rourke doesn’t nab it, captures an awful lot of what made San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk an effective public servant and a grassroots political force. The film keeps both eyes on the man behind the martyrdom. Milk’s political career may have been a tall tale, but it is a vital and absorbing one.
Those two adjectives do not apply to the fifth and least justifiable best picture nominee, “The Reader.” I don’t know if anyone could’ve gotten a viable screen result from Bernhard Schlink’s novel. Thanks to Winslet’s searching performance as the former SS guard who, years after the war, strikes up an affair with a 20-years-younger teenage boy, the film almost makes sense. But Winslet searches in vain. She is stuck playing a wholly artificial device, and I never for a minute believed the central relationship in any way.
They didn’t mean it, I’m sure, but director Stephen Daldry and adapter David Hare come dangerously close to Nazi apologia here.
While there are plenty of stories - some of them Holocaust- related stories - to be told about Hitler’s willing executioners, the way “The Reader” plods along, you think: Is one woman’s shameful illiteracy really the main point here? Why is the film so unnervingly discreet about reinforcing the ex-guard’s mass murders? Is this perplexing mixture of kitsch and self-importance really saying anything about the soul and the legacy of postwar Germany, beyond the obvious, which in “The Reader” is nothing more than: Wouldn’t it be wild if the lover you took turned out to be hiding something awful?
Winslet is as fine as this film is galling. She nearly makes the tall tale worth the telling. But compared with “The Reader,” “Slumdog Millionaire” is a documentary and “Benjamin Button” has more dramatic plausibility, reverse chronology included.