I should have known better because it's happened before. A movie gets all kinds of rave reviews, and the buzz claims it will sweep the Oscars. Then, we go, and the thing just doesn't live up to the billing, as if any film could.
We saw Slumdog Millionaire on Saturday night, and on Sunday, at the Oscars, it made the rest of the 08 films look like chopped liver. It won for very good reasons. It has, after all, just about everything a winner needs--it's indisputably of the underdog genre, although it has the prerequisite elements of a shoot 'em up, action adventure, all of it crowned by--why not?--a love story. If the game show winner and his sweetheart would be whisked away by aliens at the end, it would be a little sci fi too, although the credits sequence is its own kind of unearthly blessing (if you haven't seen it, you have no idea what that means).
It is the quintessential feel-good movie. Maybe that's why I came out of the theater feeling a little less than blessed because, well, slightly manipulated. After all, I'm a bit too old to believe that everything is just that peachy. The poor kid from the slums--the slumdog--just happens to get the only questions he could answer, his boyhood girlfriend emerges from graft and corruption at just the right time (a brother redeems himself by giving his life away), and the beloved couple ride off in a limo, leaving the slums behind after a dance number so sweet it almost makes you cry all by itself.
The film itself has a feel-good story. Didn't look as if it would ever get shown in American theaters until Fox Searchlight picked up distribution rights. Without that, it would have simply been burned into cds and lost forever. It's British, of course, shot entirely in India, where people are deeply divided, it seems, over its content--specifically, whether the film honors its setting or simply uses it as a celluloid form of 21st century colonialization.
Once, years ago, when I wanted to write a book about a Lao preacher, publishers told me--Christian publishers--that American Christian readers didn't really want to read much about mission work or other cultures; what they really wanted was books about how to raise their families--how-tos on child-rearing, prayer, and a deeper devotional life. I think it's fair to say that Americans are well-insulated, self-insulated, so I'm really happy that a movie like Slumdog gains as much favor as it has. The only thing truly American about it is its "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" theme. I'm told that many, many Indian films are feel-good; Americans don't own the film rights to pure escapism after all.
I also found it refreshing to watch a film that didn't feature the beautiful faces of almost iconic celebrities. What's more, it cost on $15 million--it's now made 160. That's a great story too.
Maybe I was less than thrilled when I left the theater Saturday night because I'm just a bit too cynical to leave my doubts at the popcorn stand. Sure, the kid won millions, got the girl, and escaped his shitty (literally) childhood. Sure, the cops--corrupt thugs--were converted by his life story. Sure, good things happen for no good reason. Sure, I wish the world were rid of slums and we didn't have an economic crisis and my mother-in-law wasn't dying. Sure, if you clean up poor kids they'll be almost sinless. Sure, hope is real.
Sure, sure, sure.