From now until the Friday before the Oscars we'll be running daily pieces about why a film does or does not deserve Best Picture. Sean kicks it off with a discussion about Stephen Frears’ Philomena!
I tried to find an angle with which to passionately defend and/or bash Philomena. I really did. I wanted to launch our annual FYC discussion about the Academy’s crop of Best Picture nominees with a fire-and-brimstone debate about the merits – or detractions – that would boost or decimate this film’s chances at claiming the Best Picture Oscar on March 2.
Unfortunately, working up a fervor for a middle-of-the-road movie like Philomena is the cinematic equivalent of trying to spark a fire by rubbing together two soaking wet sticks. Frears’ true-life missing persons mystery is too enjoyable to viciously kick, yet far too soft to ever contend for the Academy’s top prize. It is a scoop of vanilla ice cream dropped into the middle of a rainbow sorbet of superior cinematic options. It’s a crowdpleaser. History will note it as a Best Picture nominee. But I can’t see any circumstance under which Philomena can consider itself a contender.
That sounds like a slam. It really isn’t meant to be. In fact, when I broke down this year’s Best Picture candidates, I moved Frears’ movie into the Dark Horses category, ahead of No Shots like Her, Captain Phillips and Nebraska. (No offense to those decent films.) Philomena has checks in its "win" column. It has received outstanding reviews, clocking a 92% Fresh grade on Rotten Tomatoes. The movie has earned close to $30 million Stateside, and has banked north of $75 million in worldwide grosses. By all accounts, it will be a hit for The Weinstein Company, which is distributing the film.
In year’s past, we might have been able to make a case for Philomena. Based on a true story, it has two winning central performances by Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, and it’s aimed squarely at the Academy’s older demographic (who has a very large say in what film wins year after year). But there are too many other compelling storylines to pursue in the nine Best Picture nominees, from the groundbreaking technicality of Gravity to the historic gut punch that is 12 Years a Slave. Even if these co-frontrunners were to split the vote – a popular theory at the moment – equally beloved pedigree films like The Wolf of Wall Street or American Hustle would have a stronger chance of leaping the pack to grab an Oscar. If Philomena wins the Best Picture Oscar on March 2, I’ll eat everyone’s hats.
The sharks out in Vegas seem to agree. According to The Wrap, betting Web sites have Frears’ drama in a distant last place when ranking possible winners. It’s not mean. It’s just a reality. If this were the Emmys, and Dench and Coogan had teamed for a cable-network movie, I’d be willing to defend Philomena’s chances. It’s a perfectly fine movie. This isn’t the Emmys, though. It’s the Oscars. And Philomena, while fine, has absolutely no shot at winning the evening’s top prize.