By Alec Julian
November – because tradition – is proving to be venue for some bona fide Oscar bait, namely, PHILOMENA and DALLAS BUYERS CLUB – two social justice-y tearjerker biopics fraught with love, loss, and AIDS. They’re both exceptionally acted, remarkable stories that are rather unexceptionally directed (same old shots!) and unremarkably scored (same old tunes!). These films are so cooked up to please the palate of the old-fashioned Academy Award voter, they’re exuding an offensive stench that’s being misconstrued as cultural narrow-mindedness .
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is about a heterosexual hillbilly homophobe (Matthew McConaughey) who contracts HIV in the 1990’s. With a 30 day expiration date, Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) mixes up a cocktail of booze, cocaine, and stolen AZT (the HIV anti-drug), winding up with full blown AIDS in a Mexican hospital, where he learns that AZT is not as anodyne as big pharma wants it to seem, while vitamins and minerals are.
Poised to make a quick buck, the shrewd McConaughey starts a monthly subscription service – a Buyers Club – with a cross-dresser called Rayon (Jared Leto), in order to sidestep crooked FDA restrictions (on unapproved treatments). Insofar as the repartee between McConaughey and Leto drives the film, because the homophobic Woodroof arcs a little quickly, the remainder of the film is a lot of sadness. So it goes.
PHILOMENA also relies on a fairly odd couple to drive the story. Maybe the success of THE TRIP endowed the low-radar Steve Coogan with some wherewithal to co-adapt (with Jeff Pope) this striking tale about a disgraced, world-weary reporter’s (Steve Coogan as Sixsmith) road trip with an old-fashioned, wide-eyed elder (Judi Dench in the titular role) to find her son. It’s a movie about the making of a human interest story, which is something “read by weak-minded, vulnerable, ignorant people and written by weak-minded, vulnerable, ignorant people.” Guess which character says that.
Philomena’s story: She’s knocked up, abandoned by the baby daddy, and forced into delivering the baby with the aid of nuns, under the condition she work for them for 15 years and give up the baby for adoption. They may not be Sister Jude or Sister Mary Eunice, but these nuns force Philomena into a painful unmedicated delivery (penance, supposedly), sell her son to Americans, and burn their records. So it’s safe to say they’re at least as sinister as the FDA.
Sixsmith calls them “evil,” a perfect “baddy” for the “goody” Philomena. By framing the story in these cynical terms, Sixsmith (and Coogan qua writer) elevates this feature beyond a 100 minute rehash of something on 60 MINUTES. Running time matters quite a bit, actually. Unlike DALLAS, the leaner (shorter) PHILOMENA doesn’t drag (no pun intended); instead, it hops from crisis to climax to resolution without missing a beat.
Since there’s no good reason to spoil too much of this riveting tale, let’s just say that where there’s a Catholic Church, we can expect talk of homosexuality. And since each movie features an affable hero (McConaughey, Dench) peddling antiquated attitudes concerning homosexuals, from the standpoint of political correctness, this amounts to cognitive dissonance. So as we laugh at Philomena’s patronizing characterizations of a “gay homosexual” or Woodroof’s rehashed histrionics (when a steamy photo of Rayon interrupts his masturbation, for instance), we’re approving, perhaps endorsing their biases.
This is an analog of the Dave Chappelle case: The actor/comedian gave up a big payday for his sketch comedy show, feeling that it turned him into a court jester, circulating the n-word in a humorous, unserious, almost innocuous sense – enabling white people to laugh at racist characterizations of African Americans. This is not true for Woodroof, who arcs in favor of tolerance, albeit commercial enterprise lubricates (no pun intended) that transformation.
As for Philomena, whose laughable view vis-à-vis homosexuality seemingly remains firm, c’est la vie. She’s already too Christ-like (forgiving) throughout, almost every important reaction is picked from a silver linings phrasebook. Her journey is about finding her son, about coming to terms with her self-worth and confronting a sense of deep-seeded rejection, rather than overcoming homophobia. Thus, a transformation beyond that would be dishonest, unwarranted, overwrought, beside the point – too schmaltzy, even for the Academy Awards’ alter kaker voting bloc.
Alec Julian is a Los Angeles based writer, who (fake) tweets.