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Has Steve Coogan Finally Conquered America?

January 23, 2014


He’s been one of the most famous comic actors in the U.K. for decades, but Steve Coogan has stubbornly retained his “who’s that guy?” status in the States for just as long. That may be changing with his costarring role in—and, perhaps more important, his Oscar-nominated cowriting and coproducing credits on—Philomena, the change-of-pace dramedy that has been quietly racking up a tidy sum at the domestic box office since its Thanksgiving release. There he was on stage at the Golden Globes with the real Philomena Lee, the woman (magnificently embodied by Dame Judi Dench in the film) who was forced to give up her child while working and living at an Irish convent in the 1950s and later sought to track him down with the help of a cynical reporter, played by… guess who, Steve Coogan.

PHILOMENA-poster-773x1024-504x667In one sense, this journo role isn’t such a departure: He’s best known in England for playing Alan Partridge, a self-involved TV and radio presenter, in a succession of limited-run TV series and movies. The character has never successfully crossed the Atlantic in terms of broad appeal. I tried to watch his most recent cinematic incarnation, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, and couldn’t make heads or tails—or, as the British say, chalk or cheese—out of it. Coogan admirably doesn’t shy away from showing his Philomena character’s less likable qualities—the reflexive sarcasm, the condescending elitism—and never panders by making Philomena a cutesy cliché.

Coogan has made a couple of runs at American fame before, costarring with Ben Stiller in Tropic Thunder and the Night at the Museum films, Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg in The Other Guys and, less successfully, with Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Around the World in 80 Days. His acclaimed turn as a pretentious high-school drama teacher in Hamlet 2 came out of Sundance with tons of buzz, but (as these things do) fizzled upon its theatrical release many months later.

He’s had a productive and long-lived collaboration with dizzyingly versatile director Michael Winterbottom, making dramas (including 2002’s clubland opus 24 Hour Party People and last year’s excellent The Look of Love, a swinging biopic about UK porn lord Paul Raymond that got lost in translation to US audiences) and hybrid docu-comedies like the balls-out funny Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story and The Trip, in which Coogan travels and trades impressions with pal Rob Brydon. They’ll reunite for a sequel, The Trip to Italy, and a clip was just released online.

Coogan’s bid for primetime TV stardom as a disreputable lawyer in House creator David Shore’s ABC pilot Doubt raised too many doubts with execs (perhaps because it sounded so similar to Greg Kinear’s Rake). But he’s still sneakily infiltrating our shores: He was heard as Silas Ramsbottom, the head of the Anti-VIllain League in Despicable Me 2, which has earned nearly $400 million in the U.S. alone and almost $1 billion globally. Forget America—Steve Coogan may soon conquer the world.

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