I Love You, Phillip Morris
Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro
(Roadside Attractions; US theatrical: None; UK theatrical: 17 Mar 2010 (General release); 2009)
It’s 2010. Should this really be a topic anymore? For the last two years, Hollywood has fretted over what to do with the subversive Jim Carrey comedy I Love You, Phillip Morris. Wary of the film’s frank depiction of love and sex between two consenting men (one who just happens to be a borderline psychotic con artist) the movie has been shuffled around, looking for a potential distributor. Now Roadside Attractions is taking up the genial effort’s cause, giving it a high profile push this post-Thanksgiving weekend - and for that, they should be applauded. For how this winning farce meets tender love story has been treated otherwise, all others deserve to be ashamed.
Carrey plays Steven Russell, an ex-cop who lives a sneaky double life. Adopted as a child, he abuses his authority to confront his birth mother. As an adult, he tries to settle in and “fly straight”. It’s a hard act to pull off. On the one hand, he has a devoted, devoutly Christian wife (Leslie Mann) and a respectable position in the produce industry. On the other, he slinks off to seedy motels to have anonymous sex with men. Yes, Steven is a closeted homosexual, afraid if his feelings and unable to live with them. A car accident changes all that. Steven soon leaves his spouse, moves to Miami and starts living with his new gay lover. But the costs of his new lifestyle are extreme, and he is soon arrested for fraud. In prison, he meets Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), an unassuming man of similar proclivities. They soon begin a whirlwind love affair both in and out of jail, Russell’s inability avoid crime continuously driving a wedge in their otherwise intense relationship.
As a comedy, I Love You, Phillip Morris is sly and genuinely clever. Bad Santa writers Glenn Ficarraa and John Requa, directing their first film, find a wonderful balance between the absurd and the all too real. Carrey literally lifts the likable lout Russell on his aging shoulders and makes him the kind of cad you can’t help but root for - even when he’s lying to your face. As a biopic - yes, these men actually existed - the film is breezy and beguiling. The script, from Steve McVicker’s novel Prison Breaks and the subject’s own manic memoir, hits all the right beats, taking us from scarred childhood to the ins and outs of life in the joint. Finally, as a love story, Phillip Morris is genuine and heartfelt. Our two leads obviously care about each other, their blatant affection rather unnerving in its tenderness and passion.
So, what, exactly, is the problem here? What, aside from the clear commercial concerns of all involved, would keep I Love You, Phillip Morris from being released? is it the gay sex? There’s some, but hardly enough to warrant real concern. Mostly, it’s presented in a comical manner. Is it the dark twist toward the end involving…well, it’s impossible to say since it would spoil the entire last act. Could it be that Carrey and McGregor did something behind the scenes, agents and attorneys threatening action so as to keep their macho man Tinseltown track record intact? Hardly. Indeed, any excuse here is one too many. As a thoroughly engrossing, wonderfully engaging work, I Love You, Phillip Morris is a lot less unsettling that the parade of pathetic heterosexual RomComs that stain Cineplexes every year.
Perhaps it is the possibility of a backlash that scared the other studios away. After all, the USA of 2010 is a tea bagged shadow of its former self, if it every was really tolerant to begin with. One can easily envision hopped up fundamentalists attacking the way the faithful are painted here (Leslie Mann is a Jesus FREAK, to say the least). Also, I Love You, Phillip Morris argues that these two men would be content and happy if (a) society wasn’t always scowling at them, directly or indirectly and (b) there was enough tolerance so that they could live openly, honestly, and without fear of retribution both personally and professionally. As the current political climate would like say - fat friggin’ chance.
So here we have a warm, witty work of unassuming delight that just so happens to be about two men in love, and all the entirety of Tinseltown can do is shrug their shoulders and head for the hills. Is the focus grouping and marketing research really that obvious? Do you, the true film fan, actually fall into such an easily digestible demographic? You really wouldn’t pay a dime to see a pair of well known actors play gay on screen for fear of…what exactly? While it might seem like critical grandstanding or one writer getting stuck on his soap box, I Love You, Phillip Morris demands such a defense. If the film was filled with scandalous content, that would be one thing. Apparently, honest human emotions can only occur between socially acceptable adults.
All of which again begs the question - is it the movie or the message? Aside from the gay context, there is nothing to be afraid or ashamed of here. The feelings we have for Steven, Phillip, and the rest have little to do with their choice of orientation and everything to do with the way people interrelate. Sure, Ficarra and Requa bait the audience, pushing the boundaries of what their mainstream mentality might tolerate. But is it more offensive to see straights strutting around in ridiculous slapstick fashion, their every serious thought visualized by vulgar displays of stupidity? Carrey and McGregor do everything short of panhandling to get the crowds on their side. There’s just that pesky issue of lifestyle ‘choice’ to get around.
So forget all the debate and the nervous marketing postures. I Love You, Phillip Morris is a very good film marked by excellent performances and an often wicked sense of humor. Nothing here is new, especially in a media-saturated sense where homosexual themes dominate a good percentage of the current culture. Is it brave and uncompromising at times? Yes. Could it find a fanbase in spite of the gender jitters? Absolutely. Now someone just needs to convince everyone else of that fact.