I Love You Phillip Morris
Prison romance makes Carrey a fool for love
I Love You Phillip Morris
Directed by Glenn Ficarra & John Requa
Cast: Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor
Honestly, I’m a bit wary of Jim Carrey these days. I prefer to think of him as a perfectly cute dog I’ve known for years that still bites me on occasion for no good reason. Really, I don’t want to like the guy. Sure, he’s been amazing in films such as The Truman Show, Man on the Moon and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But just when I’m lulled into thinking the butt-talking comedian has matured into a fine actor, he turns around and gives us forgettable crap like Fun With Dick and Jane or Yes Man. Hell, even his serious films aren’t without blemish (2007’s just awful The Number 23). Impressive or insufferable: Carrey doesn’t have much middle ground.
Lately, Carrey has gotten a lot of positive buzz for his work on the true-life romantic prison escape dramedy I Love You Phillip Morris. So is it worth the risk? Mostly, yes.
The film has, unfortunately, been floating around Hollywood for quite some time. Mostly, because studios weren’t sure how to market a film with such overtly homosexual content. Honestly, I can’t say as I blame them. I Love You Phillip Morris is bluntly, happily, unapologietically gay in a way that few mainstream films have ever been. This isn’t, “Look, the female romantic lead has a sassy best friend who’s gay” gay. This is, “Whoa, Jim Carrey is getting a blow job” gay. Granted, the subject matter demands just such a treatment. And it’s done in a smart, realistic and quite humorous way. But homophobic mainstream America looking for some Bruce Almighty-style laughs ain’t gonna appreciate it.
Carrey certainly commits himself to the lead role, that of real-life Southern-fried con man Steven Russell. When we first meet Russell, he’s an ordinary Georgia family man, married to a nice Christian lady (Leslie Mann), raising a kid and just trying to get ahead on the American Dream. But Steven has a few secrets in his closet, not the least of which is that he likes to have sex with men. Also, he’s a habitual liar who makes most of his money by committing elaborate fraud schemes. This is presented less as a character flaw and more as a natural (if regrettable) offshoot of Steven’s need to keep his homosexuality a secret. He’s not a liar by choice, but by force of societal habit.
One fateful day, however, Steven gets into a near fatal auto accident. The brush with death gives Steven a new perspective on life. No more lies, he vows. He admits his homosexuality to his wife, the two have an amicable divorce, and Steven starts living the gay high-life, ’80s-style. Unfortunately, old habits die hard. Although he’s honest about his sexuality now, Steven still has a taste for larceny, lying his way into a corporate job and promptly embezzling millions.
Sent to prison for his dirty deeds, Steven soon meets the absolute love of his life, a quiet fellow inmate by the name of Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). The two engage in a letter-writing courtship, and Steven uses his persuasive charm to get Phillip as a cellmate. It’s blissful cohabitation behind bars for Steven and Phillip—especially since master manipulator Steven is able to procure just about any luxury in prison. Unfortunately, it all comes crashing down when Steven is transferred to another prison.
At this point, Steven’s true talent comes to the fore. He stages a series of elaborate and seemingly unlikely prison escapes. He poses as a judge, getting his own bail reduced. He pretends to be a doctor using nothing more than a green magic marker. He even goes to fantastic lengths to perpetrate an incredible medical fraud. Unbelievable, but true; every one of them. Each time, Steven ends up back in jail. Undaunted and motivated by his unwavering love for Phillip, he tries and tries again.
I Love You Phillip Morris plays out like a schizophrenic, too-crazy-to-believe version of Catch Me If You Can. Carrey gets to take on a number of different personas, which certainly exploits his talent for physical comedy. Fortunately, the true-life nature of the story keeps him more or less reined in. He plays Steven Russell with an intriguing mixture of moxie, charisma, lovestruck schmaltz and reckless abandon. The performance is good, but not as revelatory as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Watchable as Carrey is here, it would be a crime not to mention McGregor, who disappears into his role as sweet, naive Phillip Morris.
Despite some commendable performances and a bold story, the script and direction (courtesy of Glenn Ficarra & John Requa) don’t keep a consistent enough tone or pacing. The herky-jerky plot doesn’t bother much with story structure, whipping us from one madcap escapade to the next. After a while, it’s hard to keep track of Steven’s various schemes and escapes. Also, it takes a forceful director to get actors like Carrey to toe the line between comedy and pathos properly. (See also: Robin Williams.) Ficarra and Requa (who wrote Cats & Dogs, Bad Santa and Bad News Bears and are trying out their directing chops here) aren’t nearly in the same league as Milos Forman (Man on the Moon), Peter Weir (The Truman Show) and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine).
In the end, I Love You Phillip Morris is a bit of a hot mess. If you can put yourself in the manic, borderline insane, “I did it all for love!” mindset of the main character, though, you’ll find I Love You Phillip Morris a fun, fast-paced farce.