Judi Dench hits the road with Steve Coogan in the crowd pleaser "Philomena." Credit: The Weinstein Company
‘Philomena’ Director: Stephen Frears Stars: Steve Coogan, Judi Dench Rating: PG-13 2 (out of 5) Globes
In “Philomena,” Steve Coogan plays real-life politician-turned-author Martin Sixsmith, who reluctantly agreed to cover a “human interest” story: an Irish woman, one Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), is trying to find the son taken from her in her youth while at a heartless convent. As with Sixsmith, the subject matter is “below” Coogan. Sixsmith — only initially, of course — shows no interest beyond the self-serving in traveling to America with a working class type who likes trash novels and terrible movies like “Big Momma’s House.” Coogan meanwhile is a brilliant comedy performer who ought to be nowhere near a crowd-pleasing weepie in which a snob learns to have a heart.
And yet Coogan not only co-stars in “Philomena” — he co-wrote it. It’s not entirely clear what motivated him, perhaps beyond a sincere anger over what Irish convents once did to its young charges, as well as a need to broaden his career. Comedy can be a strait-jacket and, like many, he wants to be known for more. He’s excelled at playing hilariously self-interested would-be TV star Alan Partridge as well as a nasty version of “himself” in “Coffee and Cigarettes” and “The Trip.” But lately, in movies like “What Maisie Knew” (and "The Trip") he’s been making strides at perfecting a cold, distant, brittle acting style that’s the opposite of approachable.
His genuine stridency is the best thing about “Philomena,” which is otherwise a by-the-numbers crowd pleaser in which an odd couple hit the road. Coogan’s Sixsmith may be a jerk in desperate need of warming up, but Coogan is very precise and delicate in his unpleasantness. Dench’s Philomena is big and blustery, prone to rambling and warmth. She wants someone to talk to at all times, and she doesn’t get that in Coogan’s Sixsmith, who gives her the bare minimum of decency while trying not to snap out of irritation.
Coogan is playing against type while still holding up the type, which is also how he treats the screenplay. “Philomena” can be admired for not going whole hog into sappy territory, but it’s still sappy, simplistic and pandering. Sixsmith doesn’t fully flip-flop, and Coogan only grows a partial heart, but his hesitant reformation isn’t that much less aggravating than had he pulled a 180. It’s admirable that Coogan wants to do something noble and help shed light on a dark portion of U.K. history. But there are better uses of his time and considerable talents than mildly improving sorry genres.