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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'Slumdog' backlash: Fair or foul?

January 28, 2009 |  2:00 pm

Whenever there's an overwhelming favorite in the Oscar race, you can be sure, human nature being human nature and the media being the media -- in short, an institution that likes to build 'em up and then knock 'em down -- that the overwhelming favorite will soon find itself fighting off a nasty backlash.

Slumdog_2That's exactly what's happening right now in the Oscar race to Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire," which in recent days has gone from beloved underdog to embattled front-runner. When I was on the phone earlier this month with Fox Searchlight marketing chief Nancy Utley, she wondered, perhaps wanting to get an outsider's perspective, how the movie was doing. At the time, I told her: "Not that you can really control it, but the only thing you have to worry about is peaking too soon."

I guess you can say the peaking has begun. Alice Miles has a column in the London Times calling the film "poverty porn," hammering the writers and critics who've labeled "Slumdog" as a feel-good film when it is filled with "scenes of utter misery and depravity." Time magazine posted a piece Monday saying the film was "no hit" in India, with only 25% of theater seats occupied (an assessment hotly dispute by distributor Fox Searchlight.) A number of Mumbai slum residents have objected to being labeled "slumdogs." My own newspaper had a front page piece, headlined "Indians Don't Feel Good About Slumdog,' " contending that "some Indians are groaning over what they see as another stereotyped depiction of their nation, accentuating squalor, corruption and impoverished if resilient natives." And now Slate magazine has posted a withering assessment of the film by Dennis Lim, a regular contributor to both the N.Y. Times and L.A. Times, who scoffs at director Danny Boyle's "fairytale vision of squalid poverty," arguing that Boyle is guilty of "aestheticizing poverty."

Lim is a formidable essayist, whether embracing or attacking a film, so his words pack quite a wallop. His argument, in part, goes as follows:

"I would contend that the movie's real sin is not its surfeit of style but the fact that its style is in service of so very little. The flimsiness of Simon Beaufoy's scenario, a jumble of one-note characterizations and rank implausibility, makes Boyle's exertions seem ornamental, even decadent... A slippery and self-conscious concoction, 'Slumdog' has it both ways. It makes a show of being anchored in a real-world social context, then asks to be read as a fantasy. It ladles on brutality only to dispel it with frivolity. The film's evasiveness is especially dismaying when compared to the purpose and clarity of urban-poverty fables like Luis Bunuel's 'Los Olvidados,' set among Mexico City street kids, or Charles Burnett's 'Killer of Sheep,' set in inner-city Los Angeles. It's hard to fault 'Slumdog' for what it is not and never tries to be. But what it is -- a simulation of 'the real India,' which it hasn't bothered to populate with real people -- is dissonant to the point of incoherence."   

Why is 'Slumdog' suddenly coming under attack? Is it the work of a whispering campaign by nefarious Oscar rivals? Keep reading:

First off, let me put my cards on the table. "Slumdog Millionaire" is my favorite movie of the year, in part for the same reasons Lim despises it. Lim appears somewhat queasy that Boyle finds "tactile pleasure" wherever he looks. For me, that is a plus, especially coming at a time when so many films seem bogged down in dreary social realism ("Revolutionary Road"), chilly technical perfectionism ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") or such respectful idealism that they rarely examine their leading character's flaws ("Milk"). It seems unfair to thump "Slumdog" for something it isn't -- Boyle clearly didn't intend the film to be a grim expose. And why fault it for not populating the screen with real people when, in fact, the filmmakers deliberately cast real kids from the slums, even though, from a commercial standpoint, the film would've been far more accessible if it had used better-fed, English-speaking young actors in the movie's first act.

What's far more intriguing to me is why immensely popular works of art invariably inspire a backlash. In fact, the backlash -- or its first cousin, historical revisionism -- is a creation of the modern media age. Today's critics, who are invariably the torch bearers of the backlash posse, are suspicious, if not openly hostile, of any piece of art that is granted too much widespread -- i.e. uncritical -- public acceptance. In fact, the "Slumdog" crew should take the whole thing as a back-handed compliment, since you have to be incredibly successful even to inspire a backlash. No one would bother to launch an attack on a tiny cult classic or an obscure art film -- it's the picture's very popularity that inspires a critical counter-attack.

For years, pop music was haunted by this kind of cranky contrariety. During the height of the alt-rock era, any scruffy young band that had a huge hit or left their tiny indie label for a big, bad record company was sure to be cut to ribbons by jilted critics or rabid fans who saw the group's commercial success as a craven sell out. (Of course the revolt against pop stardom has largely abated now that no one actually buys any records anymore.) But film critics have been just as quick to abandon filmmakers after the first blush of success. If a movie sells for a boat-load of money at Sundance, it's instantly a target for critical second-guessing, simply because of its newfound notoriety.

In fact, the true art of Oscar marketing these days is the strategy of lowering expectations. In film, as in politics -- Hillary Clinton being the most recent example -- no one wants to be a front-runner. It simply makes you a target. Fox Searchlight has tried, in vain, to keep a lid on the tsunami of affection that "Slumdog" has inspired not just from critics, but also from rank 'n' file moviegoers, having bought far fewer "For Your Consideration" ads and staged far fewer media events than its competition, in the hopes of allowing "Slumdog" a few more precious weeks of flying under the backlash radar.

But now the movie is under fire. Once the sniping begins, the only thing to do is wait it out, hoping that the backlash fire runs out of fuel. One of the worst afflictions of our media age is that many of our most persuasive cultural apparatchiks are almost instinctively wary of commercial success, as if it were a curse instead of a delightful, altogether unlikely blessing for an artist. Whether you're a critic or simply a loyal fan, when you see a film that rocks your world, don't second guess your instincts. There's nothing wrong with love at first sight.   

Photo: Dev Patel and Freida Pinto in "Slumdog Millionaire." Credit: Ishika Mohan/Fox Searchlight

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