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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Philomena (Limited Release Date: 11-22-2013)

         Another Oscar nomination morning, another unexpected Best Picture nominee. It's a phenomenon that I wrote about in the early-goings of this blog; the propensity for the Academy to throw in one (and I mean exactly one) out-of-nowhere nominee into the big race. The last handful years have seen the likes of The Reader, The Blind Side, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and Amour grace the shortlist, and when March 2nd finally rolls around, Philomena will undoubtably serve as this year's biggest, 'wait... what?' contender. Sure, the, 'British voting block,' probably had a lot to do with how this true story snuck up on all of us, but is Philomena really ready to sit at the table with the big kids?

        Where Philomena Lee is concerned, the answer is a resounding no; the film's namesake would likely prefer the comforts of an Old Country Buffet-style eatery, with a nifty romance novel in hand, to a glitzy awards show. Such is the character whom Judi Dench embodies, chipper in spite of a whole life of bad luck, unassuming and undemanding to her deepest core. Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), on the other hand, is used to far plusher amenities. Recently displaced from his job as a BBC reporter for reasons that remain somewhat hazy, Sixsmith is in need of work, and unwittingly stumbles into Phil's daughter (Mare Winningham), who wishes to aid her mother in the finding of a long-lost son. Martin cringes at the thought of writing a human interest piece, but quickly succumbs, igniting an odd-couple road trip that eventually spans continents.

        Director Stephan Frears (High Fidelity, The Queen, Tamara Drewe) is cinema's greatest wingman: his films are always expertly paced, constructed with a sense of both style and class, and jam-packed with tremendous performances, though none of these attributes ever draws distracting attention to the man who calls, 'action.' In Philomena, he seamlessly mixes film, video, and digital all into the same project, resurrects what is essentially a dead genre (more on that soon), and still manages to sink into the background of the picture. Granted, this is easier to do when you have an actress like Dench on hand, who carries with her an ineffable grace, despite all of the knowingly geriatric comedy she's saddled with. Coogan, who also co-wrote the script and produced the film, is nearly her equal, underplaying each and every single line, requiring no explicit language to convey his character's torment.

        But therein lies my only real problem with Philomena: explicit language. No, no, not the kind you find on an Eminem album, but the kind that pins the tail on the donkey as if it had never been blindfolded in the first place. Words are often deployed when none are needed; if we see Martin spend time in swanky hotels and parties, and then watch him cringe at Philomena's willful anti-materialism, do we really need the dialogue to reinforce this dichotomy over and over again? This lack of subtly carries over to the film's merciless take-down of Catholicism, which is intriguing in its lack of restraint, but permits almost no grey between its blacks and whites. The best movies show more often than they tell; Philomena does an awful lot of both.

        Trailers and advertisements for the film have lead many to believe that Philomena is a fish-out-of-water comedy, when in fact the picture has much more in common with the Weepies of the 40's and 50's. Dredging up dead genre's can often be a fool's gambit (I'm talking to you, War Horse), but Frears' film manages to be frequently melodramatic without ever coaxing eyes to roll. In the year 2014, I'd say that's a mighty fine accomplishment, and it's a testament to all involved that the potentially cheesy story remains emotionally engaging from start to finish. I'm not sure that makes it a worthy Best Picture nominee, but far, far more egregious selections have been made than this (damn it, War Horse!). I'll probably still say, 'wait... what?' when it's name is read off on Oscar Sunday, but it'll be an affectionate, 'wait... what?'

Grade: B+

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