And just like that, Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand are robbed of the title “Most Cloying and Thoroughly Preposterous Duo on a Road Trip in Movie History.” Who could’ve imagined a film would come along and snatch it away so soon? But this-and this alone, believe me-is what formerly credible director Stephen Frears (The Grifters) has accomplished with his latest. Philomena is so pandering, patronizing and proudly by the numbers it makes the The Guilt Trip look like Lawrence of Arabia.
The supremely gifted Judi Dench pulls a De Niro here, trading on her legend in the service of a profitable triviality. I’ve seen Lifetime movies with more artistic integrity than this adaptation of Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Scripted by Jeff Pope and the film’s costar Steve Coogan, the picture tells the fact-based story of an Irish woman who teams up with a Brit journalist to find the son she was forced to give up 50 years earlier.
Lee, we learn, was a victim of the Magdalene Laundries, a collusion between the government and the Catholic Church in which unmarried mothers were forced to perform slave labor in convents. Enormous profits were amassed not only from contracts with hotels and the military but through the sale of children born there. The Irish government officially admitted complicity for the first time this year.
All that’s in the book. And that’s where most of it stayed. The better to morph the tale of a woman’s lifetime of regret into a feel-good buddy film-an often incongruously comic odyssey taking the odd couple to Washington DC and offering yucks at the unsophisticated biddy’s expense.
The filmmakers portray her as clueless as if she’d left the convent that week rather than decades before. At their hotel, for example, scanning the on demand options, she declares Big Momma’s House irresistible. Visiting the Lincoln Memorial, she quips “Look at him up there in his big chair!” The plots of romance novels she’s reading are described in deprecating detail.
Of course, that’s when the film’s not contriving to jerk tears. The pair’s search yields heart-tugging results. Odds are defied and the nuns who victimized Philomena in her youth make a third act reappearance. We learn they continued to victimize her in adulthood secretly intervening to block attempts at a reunion. These are some seriously twisted sisters.
Which brings us to perhaps the only unpredictable thing about the picture. With the arrival of awards season, the movie’s makers are trying to change their story. At any rate, to spin it. Fearing that being perceived as anti-church might alienate some viewers and limit its appeal to voting bodies, Harvey Weinstein has gone into damage control mode.
He petitioned the MPAA to get the film’s rating softened to PG-13 concerned that “church families” would be put off by an R. Both Coogan and Dench assisted in the effort. The one unexpected voice in this tinsletown jockeying has been that of Lee herself, who took the unusual step recently of responding to the author of a negative review:
“I forgive you for not taking the time to understand my story,” she wrote. “Stephen’s movie is meant to be a testament to good things, not an attack (on the church).” I won’t give away the film’s ending but my guess is anyone who sees Philomena will be hard pressed to compile much of a list of good things the church did for this poor woman.
Its cruelty and corruption are sort of the point of Sixsmith’s book. You can’t blame her for defending the film made from it, I suppose. Just bear in mind this is the same woman who considered Big Momma’s House must-see moviemaking.