Philomena as a Buddy Movie – [NO SPOILER ALERT]

Though Philomena is a road movie and a romance in the literary sense, a detective story and a buddy movie, I will focus on the latter. The film is an unusual buddy movie, for instead of two men, it is a travel movie about a woman and a man. The value of characterizing the genre of the movie is that it helps one understand, first, why some material is included in the movie, while other material is excluded. Thus, in Philomena, the scene with Mary, though it does not advance the plot one whit, does throw light on the theme. Further, there is no scene that portrays the real life regret of Philomena for what she failed to do to find her son. That would have undermined rather than transformed the genre. Secondly, by understanding the genre characteristics, we are able to use movies as a public art form to track the changing Zeitgeist.

Buddy movies are usually the complement to chicflics and are mostly about two men travelling together, except when they are about two gay guys as in the 2005 movie, Brokeback Mountain, a buddy movie which is also a chicflic. Male buddy movies are about macho adolescent men pretending to be adults trying to keep their male bonding from becoming homosexual. In recent years, creative writers and directors have tried to invert the male buddy movie where instead of celebrating alpha male for their attractiveness, physical strength and social status, mock those same traits.

But, though rare, there are also buddy movies with two females in the lead. Female buddy movies are usually a variation of a chic-flic obsessed with getting “The Man I Love”. Though Billy Holliday’s version of the song depicts that man as a woman beater and a real loser, he is still “the man I love”.

Bette Midler and Shelley Long in the Arthur Hiller 1987 Outrageous Fortune, are two striving actresses, rivals on and off stage, one brash and the other serious. They travel across America in search of a lover they unknowingly shared who faked his own death. They are followed by both CIA agents and Russian assassins. When they find their lost love, he does not choose between them but tries to kill both of them. It is a great romp.

In a satire about the quest for eternal youth and eternal life, Meryl Streep, a self-absorbed and ambitious actress, Madeline Ashton, who will do anything to stay on top, and Goldie Hawn, the writer Helen Sharp, are also rivals in the 1992 movie Death Becomes Her. It is a movie hard to forget because Meryl Street ends up with her twisted backwards and Goldie Hawn ends up with a body with a huge hole in her midriff. The object of their rivalry is Bruce Willis, a plastic surgeon, and Goldie’s beau. Bruce is smitten with Meryl when they meet and Meryl covets Bruce simply because he “belongs” to Goldie. Further, Meryl is who she is – vain, self-centred and willing to do anything to best her rival. Meryl wins. Goldie ends up in a mental hospital as an obese wreck who cannot forget her double betrayal. She fakes sanity and gets released to try to enact her plot for revenge. But by then, Meryl is a has-been and Bruce is reduced to dressing corpses for a mortician. It is a darker comedy than Outrageous Fortune and gets darker and darker and more hilarious as the movie progresses and the two “bionic” women are forced to live together and literally destroy one another. This female buddy movie has the common ingredients of rivalry, a quest, betrayal, and the total and absolute inversion of romantic love.

Kirsten Dunst who plays Betsy Jobs, the daughter of a wealthy socialite, and Michelle Williams who plays Arlene Lorenzo, the poor one who happens to live in the Watergate Hotel with her mother, in the 1999 comedy Dick, is a satire of Tricky Dick, Richard Nixon and the Watergate affair. Two 15 year old girls who are best friends are revealed as the Deep Throat. In the movie, the two of them are unintentionally responsible for the discovery of the robbery. In order to preserve the secret, they are absurdly hired as Nixon’s dog walker and, like Forrest Gump, inadvertently are responsible for key events in history. The absence of rivalry, a real chase and the absence of betrayal make this a less than satisfying buddy movie as well as a failure at satire. 

The 2008 Michael McCulers movie, Baby Mama, is really a chicflic that ends up as a female buddy movie. Tina Fey is a career woman (Kate Holbrook) who discovers she cannot have a baby and hires Amy Poehler, an obnoxious twenties something adolescent, Angie Ostrowski, to be her surrogate. From a mutually dependent but resentful relationship, the two women become bitter rivals and then, through unbelievable coincidences, best friends. Baby Mama  is also a tale of rivalry, a quest for a future through love, dapper dressing and a romantic ending.

 Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy in The Heat offer another female buddy movie. That’s just about it. Thelma and Louise is not included because the two women play the usual role of male buddies in a robbery film. If buddy movies with two women are few and far between, buddy movies with male and female leads are truly rare.

Philomena  is a male-female buddy movie about two fellow travellers coming from very different stations in life (Oxbridge versus working class) and having very different characters, but struggling to find common ground. However, there is no sexual innuendo between the two characters at all, though the whole story is really about the joy of sex – male and female sex and gay sex, and about the Catholic Church’s hatred of sexuality and the movie’s celebration of the unitary construction of gender and sexuality in a way that no gay movie has yet accomplished. For it is a movie that brackets the whole issue of marriage and relegates it to a sidebar. We never see or even hear of Philomena’s husband, the father of her two daughters.

Contrast this movie with some old classic possible precursors – Katherine Hepburn as Susan Vance in Howard Hawks 1938 Bringing Up Baby. Cary Grant is an academic unworldly paleontologist who becomes the target of Katherine’s affections as the two pursue a million dollar donation for the museum to get the missing bone for Cary Grant’s brontosaurus. The baby in question is a leopard, a charge of Katherine Hepburn’s. Cary Grant is engaged to a straight-laced Alice Swallow played by Katherine Hepburn’s rival in the film, Virginia Walker. Katherine sets her sights on Cary Grant and keeps him as a virtual prisoner and care giver for “Baby” so he cannot travel to his wedding. There are the usual plot twists and turns to ensure that love does not go smoothly, but in the end it does. This is really a romantic comedy and not much of a buddy movie of any kind for the female rival, Cary Grant’s fiancé is shifted into the background.

VeronicaLake travelling in the guise of a boy with Joel McRea in Sullivan’s Travels could be said to be a buddy movie with a male and a female, but since the female is disguised as a male, it doesn’t count. Again, it is really simply a romantic comedy. Can you think of another buddy movie with a male and female as the buddies?

Philomena is such a buddy movie. However, it is not a film about the dialectic of life and desire, survival and passion, but about passion, that whatever its tragic turn, remains forcefully and determinately wedded to life. But most surprising of all, wedded to Christian charity, love and self-sacrifice in stark juxtaposition with the Catholic Church. What remains true of all buddy movies is that this film, though focused on Judi Dench as the instrument for the transformation, is as much focused on her wise-cracking, cynical and unbelieving journalist travel companion and his transformation.

As with any buddy movie, there is the usual series of crises so you do not know whether the movie will end in tears or with laughter, while all the while you are certain that, since this is a buddy movie and a romance in the literary sense, it has to end on an up note. Part of the quiet tension is watching to see how this is achieved. How are love, sex and gender dilemmas worked through in the modern world? In Philomena, to one’s surprise, they are not worked through. They are just there, accepted in all their variations, but in high tension with the Irish Jansenist Catholic Church and its misogyny, duplicity, inhumanity and absolute amorality. But Philomena is a true believer and forgives the patriarchal nuns and priests who perpetuated these corrupt beliefs. Philomena is truly a child blessed, one truly beloved of God and the best of loving friends.

This is a female flic in a truer sense than any of the female buddy movies mentioned above. This is a film about self-realization as a man or as a woman but more about the relationship between the two characters rather than the superficialities of that relationship used to explore the relationship with oneself. This is the opposite of a masturbatory film in the guise of social intercourse. It is not about what it means to be a man. It is not about what it means to be a woman. It is not about the utopian (and unbelievable) perfect unity of marriage. It is about what it means to have a relationship. Judi Dench playing Philomena is the teacher in the quest for her long lost son who finds out whether or not her son always remained faithful, but that her adopted son who travels with her on the quest discovers what faith really is even if he does not embrace it.

That does not mean that Judi never suffers any crises of faith. There are several in the movie. It could not be a chicflic without them.  But the film is about friendship, not love ,and certainly not sex, which is considered as simply a biological function in contrast to the passion of sex in a love relationship in a movie like Blue Is The Warmest Colour which I saw yesterday. Contrary to standard chicflics or buddy movies, the primary relationship is not between two people both repelled and attracted to one another, but between a mother and son where the relationship of love is NOT about attraction and repulsion as if the two are magnets at opposite poles, but about a much deeper form of bonding than a Church offers built on the myth of a Son of God using the vehicle of a virgin and becoming the embodiment of love.

Will Philomena set a new trend? I think, rather, that it is part of a trend, not the retro trend of Paul Draper in Mad Men, but the trend to explore friendship rather than love in buddy movies as in I Love You, Man in which Peter is played by Paul Rudd and Sydney is played by Jason Segal. The focus is on friendship that develops into love, but not romantic love.