[19 February 2009]
Hate it or love it, the underdog is on top.
Not long ago, the movie to beat at this year’s Oscars seemed to be “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a big-budget, sentimental saga with marquee names like Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. Its closest competition came from somber historical dramas like “Milk,” “Frost/Nixon” and “The Reader.” And many observers wondered whether “The Dark Knight,” a blockbuster anchored by Heath Ledger’s final, bravura performance as The Joker, might nab some major awards.
But that was before “Slumdog Millionaire,” a relatively low-budget film with no American stars, a script partly in Hindi and scenes of intense violence against children, became an unlikely feel-good hit, pleasing audiences and most (but not all) critics. Last month, “Slumdog” nabbed four major Golden Globe Awards - best picture, director, screenplay and score - and more recently won the Screen Actors Guild Award for outstanding ensemble cast. When Oscar nominations were announced Jan. 22, “Benjamin Button” took the lion’s share, with 13 nods, but “Slumdog” followed right behind with 10. The race had been turned upside-down.
It’s a success story about a success story. In the film, based on the Indian novel “Q&A,” an uneducated orphan named Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) becomes an unstoppable contestant on India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Each question summons a flashback to Jamal’s hardscrabble life, and each answer brings him closer to finding his true love, Latika (Freida Pinto). Through luck, pluck and perseverance, Jamal rises above his station like a South Asian Horatio Alger; some writers have even likened him to Barack Obama. Though the film isn’t set in the United States (and the film’s director, Danny Boyle, is British), “Slumdog” strikes an American chord.
That, and its essentially happy ending, may be two reasons why this modest movie, budgeted at $15 million, has earned $68.5 million since its Nov. 12 release, according to BoxOfficeMo jo.com. “Slumdog” came out just before Hollywood unleashed a flood of gloomy films about Nazi Germany, a theme that communicates seriousness of purpose to Oscar voters but doesn’t exactly promise light entertainment to moviegoers. As a result, those moviegoers voted with their feet. “Defiance,” starring Daniel Craig as a Jewish resistance fighter, has taken in $23.2 million, about a third of what “Slumdog” has earned. “The Reader,” starring Kate Winslet as a former concentration camp guard, has pulled in $13.1 million (although Winslet seems likely to get a best actress Oscar out of it).
Hollywood generally seems to think moviegoers don’t do “edgy,” but “Slumdog” - which includes beatings, blindings and electroshock torture - is only the latest movie to prove otherwise. In recent years, audiences embraced the off-color comedy “Little Miss Sunshine,” featuring Alan Arkin as a sex-crazed, heroin-snorting grandfather, and “Juno,” a romantic comedy about a pregnant 15-year-old. Both films won Oscars for their screenplays, and Arkin won best supporting actor. At some point, Hollywood (and journalists who write about it) may have to stop acting surprised when movies like “Slumdog” go mainstream.
As with anything popular, the film has provoked a backlash. Last month, critics began questioning its flashy, rock-video approach to the subject of impoverished children. A writer at The Times of London called it “poverty porn.” Indian critics and academics raised similar concerns in a front-page Los Angeles Times story headlined “Indians Don’t Feel Good About ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’” According to Time magazine, dozens of Mumbai slum dwellers protested the film with a banner reading “I Am Not a Dog.”
But Los Angeles Times columnist Patrick Goldstein defended the movie against negative publicity, wondering: “Is it the work of a whispering campaign by nefarious Oscar rivals?” If so, Karl Rove himself couldn’t have done better: Days after “Slumdog” racked up its 10 nominations, London’s Daily Telegraph reported that two of the film’s child actors - found in the real slums of Mumbai - had been poorly paid and were still living in poverty. (The studio, Fox Searchlight Pictures, said in a statement that the children had received “three times the average local annual adult salary” and an educational fund.)
Controversy aside, the statistical edge at the Oscars still goes to “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” It’s also a prime example of Oscar chum - a $150-million epic with a name-brand cast, state-of-the-art effects and a tearjerker script co-written by Eric Roth (of “Forrest Gump,” itself a winner of six statues). Still, there’s an unquantifiable feeling in the air that when the awards are handed out Feb. 22, “Slumdog” will have its day.