Is ‘Slumdog’ really a slam dunk?

Posted by · 6:33 pm · September 6th, 2008

It’s no secret that Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” is shaping up to be one of the indie darlings of 2008. The film was the uncontested hit of the Telluride festival, bowing to sensational reviews, of which Todd McCarthy’s (key phrases: “a blast;” “fantastic energy;” “a vital piece of work”) represents the consensus.

Almost immediately, Oscar buzz began building around the film, with pundits suggesting that the film’s combination of gritty sociological themes and ultimately uplifting narrative would prove irresistible to voters seeking to annoint this year’s ‘little film that could.’ (Glib comparisons have been made to “Juno,” based on, well, nothing really — except it’s a small film that audiences like.)

Now, the latest to board the “Slumdog” train in Toronto are Tom O’Neil and Jeffrey Wells. In this video from Gold Derby, O’Neil says the film has the “passionate rooting factor” that a film needs to get those first-place votes on the nomination ballot. In closing, O’Neil and Wells agree that the film is “without question” one of 2008’s five Best Picture nominees. Article continues after the cut:

This is all very well, but I must say I remain a bit guarded. Of course, I haven’t had the advantage of seeing the film yet, but I have some caveats with their theories — not least that declaring any film a certain nominee in early September is, frankly, asking for it.

If indeed the film is as good as the buzz suggests, I like the idea of it being a Best Picture contender — it  sounds decidedly fresh and eccentric and global, all adjectives the Academy could use more of in their repertoire. And I’m totally on board with the idea of some recognition for Danny Boyle — a filmmaker who is consistently intriguing, even when he wildly misses the mark.

But I’m not entirely sold. For all the hype, it’s a largely downbeat, partly Hindi-language picture with no big names attached, about a social and geographical world that couldn’t be more alien to most Academy members. They may have got cooler in recent years, but are they ready to take that leap?

Wells admits in the video that the first two-thirds of the film are “a slog” that is difficult to watch — but that the payoff is magical. Fair enough, but we know many voters don’t exactly have the greatest attention spans. How many of them will eject the DVD before said payoff?

O’Neil doesn’t believe “Slumdog”‘s foreign status is an obstacle to its chances, citing such recent foreign-language (or partially so) nominees as “Il Postino,” “Life Is Beautiful,” “Babel” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” as evidence. True, but all those films had significant names — or Harvey Weinstein — attached. (Danny Boyle is no slouch, but he ain’t Clint Eastwood either.)

In its favour, however, “Slumdog” will have pretty much the undivided attention of Fox Searchlight, an outfit that has worked wonders in awards season lately with such crowdpleasers as “Juno” and “Little MIss Sunshine.” (Though they did drop the ball in handling the similarly foreign and quirky “Once,” which deserved recognition for more than its original song.)

If it sounds like I’m dismissing “Slumdog”‘s chances, I’m not. (Hell, I haven’t seen it.) I just wonder if people aren’t jumping the gun a bit here. What I keep going back to is last year’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” — another challenging, inspiring foreign picture with significant critical and audience support, and hefty studio backing.

From the get-go, I was convinced “Diving Bell” was a Best Picture nominee — one that could garner enough first-place votes to make the cut — until nomination morning, when it was narrowly squeezed out by five titles that had in their favour either more name recognition or more mainstream appeal.

“Slumdog Millionaire” could be this year’s underdog. But so could a number of other films. That’s assuming there will even be room for an underdog amid the glossier studio product yet to open. From where I stand, until we’ve seen more of the latter, declaring anything a certain nominee is somewhat premature.

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7 responses so far

  • 1 9-06-2008 at 7:17 pm

    Bobby said...

    Is it a Foreign Language film though? They do mention in that interview that it’s mostly in English or does the fact that it features an all Foreign cast make it a Foreign Film?

  • 2 9-06-2008 at 9:47 pm

    Ben said...

    I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t count for the oscar or globe Foreign Language rules if the majority of the film is in English (the globes didn’t place Babel in FL, and last year the academy disqualified The Band’s Visit from FL for having too much English dialogue).

    The oscar FL rules have to do with being a selection from the country of origin and the film must be in an official language of that country (though unlike the globes, at the oscars FL films as well as documentaries and animated features can also compete for the normal best picture prize), while the globes place any movie where a significant majority of the dialogue isn’t in English under FL, even if it is an American film.

  • 3 9-06-2008 at 10:55 pm

    head_wizard said...

    You make some good arguments against this films chances in the best picture race. And I think those will be hard for it to overcome. Plus how many small indie movies do we have going for that slot right now(if such a slot even exists) Happy Go Lucky and Rachel Getting Married for starters and they have more familar faces.

    Plus its hard for me to take Wells and O’Neil seriously . Especially in being ableto predict any film with that much certainty, especially so early in the race.

  • 4 9-07-2008 at 2:45 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    As I said in the article, it’s part-English, part-Hindi — so certainly not a Foreign Language Film contender. When I talk about it’s “foreignness” being a potential obstacle, I’m not just referring to language.

    head_wizard: I completely agree. The Academy has nominated a few indie films in recent years, but I don’t think they necessarily feel obliged to fill that ‘slot’ on an annual basis.