Best Picture Odyssey: “Philomena”

Ugh, do I have to?

That sounds like a negative judgment, but it’s not. In fact, I think this is a pretty good movie, all things considered. But it’s not a really interesting type of good. It’s so generically effective and engaging that talking about it is kinda boring. Well, here goes nothing.

Before you ask, yes, this is a real movie that is nominated for Best Picture this year. If you have heard of it, it’s pretty likely that you didn’t before the Oscar nominations were announced. I knew next to nothing about it before that. I mean, I had seen a poster, but that was the extent of my Philomena knowledge. Here, take a look at this and see what you can glean from it.

Philomena_poster
“The Adventures of Smiley Lady and Bemused-Skepticism Man!”

So, it’s about Judi Dench trying to find her long-lost son. And Steve Coogan is apparently her “unlikely companion.” Obviously, they go on some wacky misadventure and at the end it turns out Coogan is the son and they tearfully reunite, right? The movie practically writes itself. Except that it actually doesn’t. The thing that surprised me most about it is, well, how much it surprised me. Knowing so little going in certainly helped, but there are twists in this story which genuinely caught me off guard.

Those moments weren’t structured as big reveals either, which is a big success of Philomena. I expected a very paint-by-numbers, predictable film, but its most interesting aspects are details that you can’t possibly predict. It takes a hard left turn about a third of the way through, and after that point all bets are off. You know how some TV shows will kill off a main character just to show that “anyone can die?” This isn’t exactly like that, but it’s similar in some respects. It sharply subverts your expectations, and from that point on the range of possibilities is wide open. The movie could be about anything it wants.

What it does choose to be about is religion, which is a very dangerous line to walk in a movie with the tone of a dramedy. In any movie, really. Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) had a child out of wedlock as a teenager, and since she grew up in a very religious community, her parents left her to be taken in by a convent, where she worked to gain “penance” for her “crimes” while the nuns sold the babies to American couples. She has lived her whole life as a religious woman, despite the awful things done to her in the name of that religion. Enter Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a disgraced former government advisor and journalist who agrees to help Philomena track down her son so that he can publish a fluff piece about it. It’s made painfully clear from the start that Martin is an atheist, and while the dialogue may seem forced in those scenes, I was kind of okay with it. Anyone who’s been on the Internet knows that there are plenty of atheists who base their entire identity on their non-belief in a god and will loudly proclaim that fact to anyone within earshot. It’s lame writing, but it’s not totally unrealistic. It’s a classic buddy-comedy set-up. He’s a smarmy, cynical jerk who sarcastically sneers at “kindness” and “respect.” She’s a genuine, sincere Catholic who is sweet and accommodating to an insane degree. They seem like cardboard adversaries, but in the scenes where they talk about religion, it doesn’t come across that way. Martin’s arguments against religion are only backed up by what the nuns did to Philomena, so he’s baffled when she repeatedly indicates that she has the capacity to forgive them and move on.

What’s most important here is that the film absolutely does not take sides. Martin’s right that the nuns did some horrible things because their religion told them that it was okay. Philomena’s right that her faith has made her a more caring person, regardless of how it affects other people. Martin doesn’t have a big revelation and start going back to church. What does happen is much more authentic and impartial, though I’m sure it’s easy to see it as leaning towards one point of view or the other. Religious debate is so often mishandled on screen because it’s so rare to get a film that is isn’t polarized and biased. These are the kinds of movies where the filmmakers want you to come out agreeing with their side of the argument. What Philomena says is that there really is no argument after all. There are only people, and they can choose to be good or bad whether or not they are religious. It’s an impressively bold choice to be so evenhanded with this issue. Then again, I’m the kind of person who sees the world that way anyway. People who are absolutely convinced one way or another might love the film for reinforcing them or hate it for subverting them. How great is it, though, that it can do both of those things? For a film that appears on the surface to be innocuous fluff, Philomena deals with its central issue in a smart, fair way.

That’s what I really liked about the film, but like I said, there’s not a whole lot more to say. I mean, it is innocuous fluff at the end of the day. Its strongest decision is to not make any strong decisions. It’s a very quiet, simple film. In fact, it’s much more digestible outside of the “Best Picture” context. If you’re going to see it, just think of it as a small British comedy with two affable stars. When you think about it in the same group as films like Gravity or The Wolf of Wall StreetPhilomena feels skimpy and dumb. So forget about all the Academy nonsense. Just sit down and enjoy some well-made, lighthearted fun. At least you’re not sitting through American Hustle.

My mom might not be happy with this review, considering that she adored Philomena and thinks a lot more highly of it than I do. Well, I certainly can’t fault it for anything, I’ll give it that. Philomena is very competent. There’s nothing extraordinary about it, but it’s hard to be down on it since there’s really nothing that’s broken. It lived up to its meager ambitions, which is one of the benefits of having meager ambitions, after all. Oh well. I don’t hate it, I don’t think it’s a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. I just can’t really fall in love with it. But hey, my mom is totally on board, and I’m happy that she enjoyed it. So you’ve got her Oscar vote, Philomena producers. Any decent film that can generate that level of appreciation ought to be proud of themselves.

Next Week: 2/15

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS.

Stay tuned…

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Josh Rosenfield

Josh Rosenfield is a Film Media major at the University of Rhode Island. He has been writing Popcorn Culture since 2010.

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