Steve Coogan has a couple of favorite topics. Sometimes it is not good to have Joneses.
The remarkably hard-working English writer, actor, and comedian who gave us “Hamlet 2” and has starred in lots of other films, including “Tropic Thunder,” “Hot Fuzz,” and “In the Loop,” keeps coming back to religion, which he doesn’t much like. Remember “Rock Me Sexy Jesus”?
He also finds working class people to be essentially funny—have you seen his TV series “Saxondale”? And he’s into partisan politics to the extent that he doesn’t know his generalizations about American political parties are likely to make him an unintentional laughing stock over here.
Coogan stars in and has co-written the screenplay for the latest British older-women movie to play here in town, “Philomena.” The script is based on a book by Martin Sixsmith, and Dame Judi Dench gets almost as much screen time as does Coogan.
The film was directed by Stephen Frears, a very interesting director. He has given us “Dirty, Pretty Things,” “High Fidelity,” and “The Grifters.” He has also directed “Mary Reilly,” “Tamara Drewe,” and a Sarah Brightman video. The point is that when he is good, his movies are very good indeed. But sometimes they aren’t.
And “Philomena,” with all its romance novel sentimentality (while Coogan’s script makes fun of Dench’s title character for recalling the plots of romance novels), didn’t much entertain me.
The story goes like this: Coogan plays Sixsmith, a would-be Russian historian who has gotten side-tracked doing journalism and has recently been fired from his job as a political press agent. A caterer’s waitress approaches him at a party and tries to interest him in her mother’s story.
Her mother, a orphan Irish girl, was sent to an establishment of nuns when she turned up pregnant. Her son was adopted. The nuns generally treated her ill and made her, and the other unmarried young mothers, work very hard to pay off their deliveries.
Now, fifty years later, Philomena wants to find her son, to make certain he isn’t homeless and to learn whether or not he ever thinks of his biological mother. The nuns have not helped her. They claim their records were destroyed in a fire.
Locals at the pub suggest the nuns set the fire and that they used to sell babies to Americans—Jane Russell was one—for a thousand pounds. Sixsmith sells the “human interest” story to a newspaper editor in London, faces down the nuns with Philomena, and travels with her to Washington where they hope to get further information about the boy.
Knowing when the kid came to the U.S., the writer checks an odd U.S. government data base to see who brought adopted children into the country about then. Almost immediately he finds Philomena’s son, knows who adopted him, knows that he became a lawyer and worked in the White House for two presidents, and knows that he died almost ten years before the action in the movie.
Ironically, Sixsmith realizes he once met the man. The journalist then takes Philomena to visit one of Michael’s old co-workers, his trailer-trash adopted sister (played by Mare Winningham) who is less than no use to them, and Michael’s old beau, the reticent Pete Olson.
Does the old lady get any satisfaction from these trying visits? Where do you suppose Michael is buried? What do you suppose he died of, being homosexual and living in the 1990s? How will grave visiting lead to a story climax (sort of) and to Philomena’s sudden and inexplicable decision about publishing the story?
Believe me, you’re right on all counts. There are few surprises in the story. Most of the surprises come in the weakness of venom Sixsmith saves up for the institutions which failed Philomena the curious birth mother (and protected the adopting parents of the children). Americans will also have some trouble with the film’s emphasis on Philomena’s lack of class and on her willingness to chat with cooks and porters.
But no one’s going to have much trouble following the main story. It is about as programmatic as the ones in the romance novels that Dench keeps re-telling to Coogan. As programmatic, and as artificial.