Tuesday, December 25, 2007

"The Great Debaters" -- * 1/2

I completely admit, when it comes to Denzel Washington's "The Great Debaters," I am biased. I absolutely fucking hate inspirational true stories. They're, by far, my least favorite genre of movies. They're treacly, sentimental, homogenized, familiar, white-washed pap manufactured purely to make people feel good about themselves and provide phony uplift that still feels artificial despite having basis in truth. While there have been exceptions (usually when the filmmakers decide to avoid these things I don't like about them), the amount of times "inspirational" goes hand-in-hand with "interesting" is few and far between. So, it's my regret to predictably report that, while there are large segments of people who are going to really enjoy "The Great Debaters," I'm not one of them. To me, this story of a teacher (Denzel) who inspired his students to rise up against racial oppression through creating and succeeding as debate team, was about as engaging as its title, and I'll be terribly happy if I never see a gooey, music-swelling, inspirational true story like it ever again.

Sure, this is a nice story, and it has some nice messages for kids, but why do I care? I would've much preferred to read a detailed Readers Digest story documenting it than watch a bloated, two-hour long film version with what seemed like a dozen sequences of rousing speeches getting standing ovations. Like "The Bucket List," it feels like a TV-movie, despite the presence of Denzel and a very good Forest Whitaker. But the filmmaking just feels sloppy (aside from dull), with both a sleep-inducing score and a propensity for depicting all white people as inbred, racist rednecks, as well as treating its audience like idiots. A few such sequences are springing to mind, but most memorably, one where Denzel's wife makes him read a letter out loud for the audience's sake, even though she's already read it. I do recognize that this is an Oprah-produced feature, so perhaps it's not wise to be panning it so; but what can I say, I like to live dangerously. To be fair, "Debaters" isn't anything terrible. If you tend to like this sort of thing, it's fine for what it is. But for me, it was nearly excruciating. It's a nice, boring, treacly, inspiring movie.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: God, I hope not.


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