Before I had the baby, we used to go to the movies every Friday night. Rare was an Oscar season in which we hadn’t seen all the films well in advance. And I always managed to stay up for the whole show. How times have changed… But in fact it has not been that bad. This year, most of the Best Picture nominees came out on DVD moments after the telecast ended, if not before and I find I just don’t care as much anymore. I read all the movies reviewed, so I can usually tell in advance which ones I am going to like and for what reason. As a completist, I do soldier on, adding the nominees to my queue.
Which is by way of explanation of why I only saw Slumdog Millionaire last month. Its Best Picture win held it over in theaters and then it moved into Long Wait territory. When it finally came in the mail I was distinctly unenthusiastic. We had rented Danny Boyle’s Millions earlier this spring, because I heard it was good, and because one of the adorable leads looks like my son. We were underwhelmed. Gorgeous art direction and super-saturated color, so I could see what attracted Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle to India. Great kid acting, so I could see what attracted Boyle to the story. Millions seemed like an Irish try-out for Slumdog, dead mum, sibling rivalry, rags-to-riches story and all, but with a much softer sell. The real terrors in Slumdog, which immediately came to seem out of proportion to a beautiful fairy tale, are absent from Millions. But both suffer from a similar wavering of purpose from gritty realism to wish fulfilment.
As we watched Slumdog, it was all that I feared. Horrific acts were committed and the characters glided on, as if dismissing their reality. I felt psychologically damaged watching torture vividly and beautifully depicted on screen, but was then supposed to just move on like the running, running characters towards their Bollywood conclusion. I suspect I was supposed to have the queasy pleasure of seeing the worst happen that sells millions of Oprah books. Years ago I reviewed White Oleander, one of the worst offenders in this category before Lovely Bones and pointed out the prevalence and predictability of the genre.
This is the kind of book in which, as soon as you meet Uncle Ray, Astrid’s foster mother’s boyfriend, you know there’s going to be sexual abuse. White Oleander is a loosely stitched-together series of these worst nightmares: a mother who starves her young, a high-class prostitute, a suicidal fading actress, a tough-talking Russian flea-market hustler... Fitch’s writing has trippy, visceral power, but the reader remains unconvinced that she hasn’t just written this as an exercise in high-brow shock lit — A. M. Homes Lite.
Slumdog struck me the same way, entirely predictable in its dropped clues, terrible acts and unearned and unbelievable (but not because he was a slumdog) ending.