I Love You, Phillip Morris
Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro
(Consolidated Pictures Group; US theatrical: None; UK theatrical: 17 Mar 2010 (General release); 2009)
There’s a movie currently sitting on a studio shelf somewhere in Tinseltown, that most of the industry doesn’t want you to see. It doesn’t offer gross out gore effects or some manner of sick twisted torture porn. It stars a former funny man still loaded with considerable commercial cache and a British thespian who continues to reach beyond his walking Star Wars wounded appeal. The script (and first time direction) comes from the adept duo behind Bad Santa and the recent Bad News Bears remake and yet, for some unfathomable reason, Hollywood has yet to greenlight a wide theatrical release. Apparently, even with an interesting cast and a smart, clever approach, there’s something about I Love You Phillip Morris that makes movie biz nervous.
It can’t be Jim Carrey. Though he’s no longer the number one box office draw of a decade ago, he still has some leg left in his career. Ewan McGregor is also a viable mid-level star, the aura of Obi-Wan Kenobi no longer fouling every film he’s in. The premise is a familiar one, especially to high concept comedies - a con man who uses his considerable huckster skills and undying devotion to the one he loves to leave a trail of comic destruction across a wide patch of the planet. Oh, and did we mention that this man, Steven Russell, actually existed and that the movie is based on many of his real life exploits? So what is the problem, you ask. Well, it’s quite simple, really. Mr. Russell was a homosexual, and the motion picture interpretation of his story, is one of the most rainbow flag-waving queer-friendly entertainments ever.
What? Gay? That’s the problem here? That’s the reason why the film has sat stagnant for almost two years, getting one postponed release date after another until it was clear that there was never a real desire to see the movie screened? You’re kidding, right? Granted, at first glance, it looks like a stretch. After all, Hollywood embraced out and upfront efforts like Brokeback Mountain, Milk, and Capote, awarding them generously and making them a point of publicized professional pride. Even better, the Indie side of cinema has long embraced alternative lifestyle storytelling, a seemingly endless array of styles and genres illustrating various aspects of gay life in the 20th/21st Century. So surely, it can’t be the homosexual angle that warrants mainstream concern, can it?
Not so fast there thinker of rational thoughts. I Love You Phillip Morris is not just out to sell you a satiric same sex saga. No, co-writers/co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa wallow in the perceived excesses of a pre-AIDS lifestyle in all its bathhouse and bathroom cruising glory. Russell, an adopted child who grew up to be a cop (if only to get information on the mother who gave him up), initially lives a Born Again existence as a God fearing churchgoer. His wife (Leslie Mann) is so devoted and loving she can’t see that her man is slowly coming apart. Later, a car accident forces Russell to admit his hidden proclivities and thus begins a whirlwind movie middle section where he moves to Miami, swings like a stormtropper, and learns a hard lesson about crime and its inability to pay properly.
During these scenes, Ficarra and Requa show how brave Carrey as a former icon can be by having him situated in several obvious if not graphic gay sex scenes. There is the constant inference of oral sex, a couple of anal acts (with hilarious consequences), frank talk and descriptions, and lots of guy to guy lip locking. Through it all, the humor is mixed with an undertone of seriousness and send-up. Religion gets the bulk of the blame, the “go with God” elements of his past constantly contrasted with Russell’s love of penis. At the point where his con jobs cost him his freedom, the character has both broken out of the stereotypical mode as well as followed every hedonistic archetype the era has to offer.
Meeting Morris in jail turns the tables on the narrative once more. The notion of romance and real love comes into play, Carrey’s arc jester a perfect counterbalance to McGregor’s quite and reserved inmate. The rest of the movie follows their various fallings in and out, Russell’s attempts to be with Morris at any cost, and the comedy/heartache that ensues. While the tone of I Love You Phillip Morris is decidedly inconsistent, Ficarra and Requa maintain an undercurrent of subversion. True, it could be derived directly from the subject matter or the unlocked lead performance by Carrey, but for the most part, the movie is purposefully tweaking the social order’s take on being gay. It will play into prejudices and flawed predeterminations, and then turn around and give the entire concept a decidedly humble and human face. Punchline intend to make it more palatable.
So what we end up with is a hilarious, insightful, smart, clever, unbalanced and uncompromising movie that doesn’t shy away from the seedier and more sensational elements of its story - criminally or carnally. Carrey, McGregor, Mann, and the rest of the cast are excellent, never once going so far as to make this farce. Sure, the male member and its various hidey holes are given ample audience, but this isn’t hardcore - instead, it’s the kind of outlandish almost-shown humor that heterosexual comedies have been offering since Judd Apatow introduced us to a certain 40 year old virgin. Indeed, I Love You Phillip Morris could easily be mistaken for one of Mr. Knocked Up‘s movies, except this time around, the dick jokes are all illustrated. With all this going for it, such a film should have at least a shot of success, right?
Not necessarily. Hollywood and the European company who financed the film have yet to come up with a decent distribution plan. It’s been two years and holding and the most disturbing element of the process is how hush-hush everyone has been. Critics who’ve been lucky enough to see the film admit it’s a hard sell to a regular Cineplex crowd, but deny it is a flat out bomb that should quietly shuttle off for a direct to DVD ending (like so many sitting on the shelf titles wind up). No one is pointing directly to the gay themes and suggesting that viewers can’t handle same, but there is a sneaky, unwritten rationale that seems to argue against the movie’s ability to play. Briefly, it infers that the right demographic - teens, college kids and otherwise enlightened individuals - is not large enough to sustain the film financially, and that the rest of the movie-going public will reject, not embrace, such a same sex showdown.
Without saying it outright, the studio system is convinced that you, the average Joe and Josephine, cannot handle Jim Carrey kissing (among other things) a man. They believe that no amount of humor or brains can overcome the one sided love story and that all acting and directing talent aside, the subject matter is too scandalous to resonate. Of course, the same argument could be made about Milk, or Brokeback Mountain, but both of those films were end of the year season dramas that expected to play to a smaller, more specialized crowd. With Jim Carrey in tow, families will feel the comic’s silly siren song (MPAA rating aside), and wind up with a face full of…well, you know - and who’s going to be responsible for that?
It’s surreal that in 2010 we are still demonizing homosexuality in this way, even in what seems to be a very benign and business modeled manner. While no one is suggesting a film like I Love You Phillip Morris not be made, they are concluding that so few of the current population will embrace it to make it profitable. Maybe they are afraid of the backlash, our present politicized society eager for something to take their mind off the lagging economy and teabag/socialism back and forth. Of course, a few focus group overviews could suggest that no matter how open minded or forward thinking a post-millennial audience is, the movie will simply fail on its own narrative merits, lacking a universal element that turns something ho-hum into a hit. Whatever the case, I Love You Phillip Morris is a good film apparently flummoxed by a core conceit that makes some people uncomfortable. The decision to keep it hidden, however, should be even more of a concern.