Best Picture Part 5: Slumdog Millionaire

Part Five of a Five Part series previewing the Best Picture nominees.

I have a love-hate relationship with Roger Ebert’s work. It is really more hate than love, but he does make some statements that I completely agree with. Pulp Fiction was the Best Picture of 1994? Agreed. However, he does make some ridiculous ones as well that leave me shaking my head in disbelief. When I read Ebert’s proclamation that "Slumdog Millionaire was the Best Picture of the year and will undoubtedly receive a lot of attention come Oscar time." I found myself skeptical and weary of that statement, especially after reading a synopsis of the film.

So, the expectations were very high when I saw the film on rather crowded opening night at the Downer Theatre on Milwaukee's east side.

After seeing the film, I walked away from Slumdog Millionaire looking for greatness. As a stand alone movie it is good, but it was not great. The intangibles that make so many movies great – a fantastic performance, the dialogue, music, whatever – were not present. How could this movie fail to live up to the hype even though it had received near universal acclaim?

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Is the soundtrack electrifying? Yes, one of the ten best of the year. A. R. Rahman’s score is high energy when it needs to be, somber at the right moments, and has some great songs. Danny Boyle’s love for music is evident in his willingness to let Rahman compose and perform the music.

How about the performances in the film? They left me unmoved to the point that I was glad when they finally moved from the small children to the teenagers merely because it was something new. Admittedly, I found Dev Patel’s wide-eyed, innocent performance fun, but I think it loses some value for me because he – as in Dev Patel – is experiencing through the actual experience of making a feature film. The small children? Cute at times, though I felt like the children were not being allowed to act. The teenagers? Indifferent. If you are going to have rambunctious, murdering teenagers, take a page out of the City of God playbook. I almost wanted to laugh when a teenage boy shots a man in the head during a confrontation. I just was not buying it.

The cinematography was good in the film. I felt that it does not merit a place among the best of the year, but it was very good considering the array of the color palate the film was working with.

What about Danny Boyle’s direction? Out of the five Best Picture nominees this year, this film clearly has its director’s fingerprints all over it. You can almost feel Danny Boyle’s energy on the screen. However, how much of it was really him? If he co-directed the film with a person from India, while on location in India, how much of it is really him? I want to believe that it is him – all of it – but I wonder. The DGA is usually so critical of directors who attempt to do co-directed pieces. In 2005, when Robert Rodriguez said he wanted to give Frank Miller a co-direction credit on Sin City, the DGA told him, “No.” Rodriguez ended up quitting from the guild because of the politics and rigid rules. So, how does Slumdog work its way around that?

Is there anything that I actually enjoyed, aside from the music and camerawork? I enjoyed Simon Beaufoy’s script. I think it was a good adaptation, I think that is worked to the best of its abilities.

To me, the movie fails to live up to the hype and it falls short of great. It services as a functional film that screams to the audience, “Hey! Do you know about India? No!? Well, here you go!” It focuses on the stringent caste system of India, which is enlightening, but not revelatory. Class systems have existed and still do exist, so for people to call it “searing” is a bit over the top. The movie seems mesmerized by incorporating the Taj Mahal, but then turning the rest of the country into stereotypical Asian mainland – bustling, crowded, polluted.

In ten years, people will reflect upon these Oscars. I think this award season – not the show itself, but the season – will remain in everyone’s mind for two reasons: One, the lack of The Dark Knight in consideration for Best Picture, Best Director, etc. Two, the fact that Slumdog Millionaire has not aged very well as a Best Picture winner. I feel that anyone of the other nominees, save Frost/Nixon, will have aged and matured better than Slumdog Millionaire. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Milk, and The Reader may be remembered for their faults, their performances, and a slew of other ideas, but they will have aged better.

It is like reflecting on the 1997 Oscars. Sure, Titanic may have been the Best Picture of that year, but was it really? In hindsight, and some separation, was L.A. Confidential not the Best Picture of that year? Was the Academy just swept up on Titanic fever? Probably, but that becomes completely irrelevant once James Cameron proclaims that he is “king of the world!”

So, when Danny Boyle and Christian Colston claim the top prize on Sunday, I hope they do not make such a condemning statement. That is the only advice I can give them on their undeserved juggernaut.

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