Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The truth about "Slumdog Millionaire"

(This one's got some spoilers. Please don't read the clearly marked section if you haven't seen the film. I don't normally use spoilers at all, but I think that it's necessary this time.)

I'll be honest with you. I haven't watched the Oscars yet. I was in London and was sound asleep when they were on. I have, however, seen Slumdog Millionaire, the film honored with the Academy Award for Best Picture. Man, we got a big turkey on our hands, kids. A BIG turkey.

My problem isn't that I don't like the movie. I like it a lot. It's one of the best movies of 2008. That's not up for dispute. I said as much the day I saw it. It's not that I don't appreciate the fact that a movie with no stars, no budget, and no chance won the top prize in an industry dominated by stars, big budgets, and "sure things." Here's the thing: when I see a film that might win/has won Best Picture, I expect a certain amount of "pop" from the film. What's "pop?" It's that little something extra you get when you know that the film you're watching is a special one that you're don't see the likes of very often. It's a connection that gets made when your mind says, "Hey, pay attention. This is one you'll want to remember."

That said, Slumdog Millionaire hasn't got it. I could go down the list of past Oscar winners and point out film after film with "pop" to spare. Now I understand that you might be thinking to yourself, "So, why should I listen to this guy whine? Just because he didn't get the movie doesn't mean anything." I disagree, although the fact that I am the guy doing the whining is a fact that shouldn't be ignored.

The film has a huge structural flaw. It might not seem like a big one, but when the aims of the film are considered, it's a biggie. (SPOILERS FOLLOW) At the close of the film, when Jamal's about ready to win the game show, Danny Boyle thought it'd be a good idea to cut back and forth between that the action at that location and the action at another, the mansion where Salim's about to die at the hands of his former associates. It's not like this trick's never been done before. There are tons of films I could mention that cut back and forth between multiple locations at their respective climaxes. I think it's detrimental to Slumdog Millionaire for one main reason. The entire film has been building up to this moment. It ought to be a cathartic moment in which the audience's emotions are released simultaneously in a veritable explosion of joy. Instead, by refusing to make the game show scene the primary scene and milking it for all it was worth, the sequence ends up losing a significant bit of its emotional power. I found the cross-cutting distracting and disappointing. I wanted to feel that explosion of energy. I wanted to feel like standing up and cheering. A good movie like that deserves better. (SPOILERS END) This is really my biggest beef with Slumdog Millionaire. The fact that it's really a big rags-to-riches feel-good movie doesn't bother me as much as the fact that it's a partially ineffective big rags-to-riches feel-good movie does.

Additionally, the film received 8 Academy Awards out of 10 nominations. This doesn't make much sense to me. The recent Academy trend has been away from awarding any one film with the vast majority of awards. I don't think that Slumdog Millionaire deserved 8 nominations, much less 8 Oscars.

I wonder if, years from now, this film will be looked back at as one of those films that won Best Picture as a fluke, like Gladiator, Crash,or Chicago. (I know that hate mail might ensue from the Gladiator fans, but I hold that any time you have both Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon AND Traffic against you, there's no way you get first place.) I can't help but look back at 2004's Academy Awards as the gold standard of recent years. The Best Picture nominees were The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Lost In Translation, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Mystic River, and Seabiscuit. Can you name one film that doesn't belong on that list? I can't. That year, 5 of the year's very best films were up for the big one. This year, can you think of one of the nominees as good as any of those? (now, I haven't seen 2 of the nominees yet, so feel free to correct me if I'm wrong. Personally, I think The Reader is up there.)

It seems to me that Slumdog Millionaire's success comes merely as a result of being in the right place at the right time. It ended up with all the momentum at the time when momentum means everything. I don't have a problem with it being nominated for the big gold guy. I do have a problem with it being the front-runner and eventual winner. Think of last year. We had No Country For Old Men as our champ. What's more, There Will Be Blood, a film that I liked even more, was in the running too. This year's crop of nominees made me miss those two films a lot. At least they both deserved the accolades they received. That said, I could be wrong, and, in 20 years, Slumdog Millionaire might be considered a classic film. I recognize that.

I still think I'm right.


Megan said...

Dude I forgot Gladiator won best picture...strange. I do have to say I won't fight you on Crash (I hated that movie), but I loved Chicago and thought Rob Marshall was amazing.

I do agree that Slumdog is a good movie but noway near best picture quality...and while I am glad a zombie movie director got best director I don't think he was the best director of this year.

Adam said...

I would have liked to see David Fincher win for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I don't think it's as good of a movie as it would like to be, but what Fincher did as a director with that material deserves a LOT more credit than he's gotten. Who would you have liked to see win?

Megan said...

The people I thought were the best directors of the year weren't even nominated.

I would have given it (probably) to Christopher Nolan, but I would have liked to see Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), Jonathan Demme (Rachel Getting Married) or even Ron Howard.

Adam said...

Or Clint Eastwood for Gran Torino. That film being snubbed was unbelievable.

Anonymous said...

Gladiator seems to be playing on every channel every time I get home, Its become the new Shawshank on TNT.

Anyway, still need to see Slumdog but I'll definetly take into account what you just said when I finally see it. I really hate how directors think they're being so clever nowadays when they cut their films like that so I'll probably agree with you on that.

Its not just undeserving films though, its also actors as well. There's a laundry list of award winners who never went on to do anything of value after their big win.