I Love You Phillip Morris
Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Screenplay by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra
Jim Carrey as Steven Russell
Ewan McGregor as Phillip Morris
Leslie Mann as Debbie
Rodrigo Santoro as Jimmy Kemple
Running time: 100 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated R for sexual content including strong dialogue, and language.
The story of a real-life conman is sometimes funny, sometimes patently ridiculous, and could have been better.
Jim Carrey’s particular brand of putty-faced slapstick made him famous in the late ‘80s, but it wasn’t until the mid-90s that he surged out of television and became a bona fide movie star. Once upon a time, everywhere you went you heard teenagers worshipfully quoting his obnoxious, over-the-top characters in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Dumb and Dumber, and The Cable Guy. The actor has only been doing the occasional drama since 1998’s The Truman Show, but he’s shown remarkable ability to play against type. In this year’s I Love You, Phillip Morris, a true story about a gay Texas conman, he whips out a performance that is funny, silly, and believable. If you’re among the hordes that prefer Carrey less Ace Ventura, more Joel Barish, know this: his involvement in Phillip Morris shouldn’t be a deterrent to buying a ticket.
I Love You, Phillip Morris’s first title cards implore us to trust the implausible: “This really happened. It really did.” Steven Russell (Carrey) is happily married to Debbie (Leslie Mann) when he narrates nonchalantly that oh, yeah, he’s gay (and is in fact having lots of sex with men). His whole life is an intricately layered lie. Since he was adopted he never knew his birth family. He’s not heterosexual, though he sometimes pretends to be. He’s not a lawyer, a CFO, or a rich man, but he plays these roles. What he is, is a criminal (albeit a likeable one). During Steven’s first stint in prison for insurance fraud, he falls for a fellow prisoner, fey, soft-spoken Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). The rest of the movie follows their dysfunctional love story through prison sentences, Corvettes, illnesses, mansions, and tribulations. The story is part Catch Me If You Can, part The Informant!, and part Get Real. Between bright spots in which Carrey showcases genuine emotion, the story cruises along at a jerky trot, sometimes comical and sometimes just a misstep away.
Production companies publicly balked at releasing I Love You, Phillip Morris due to its overtly gay content. It played in Europe and Asia in January and February, 2010, and should’ve enjoyed a wide release last summer. Unfortunately, it seems American audiences are wary of any more gay sex than they saw in Brokeback Mountain, and the release was pushed back yet again to December. At least since it’s been re-edited, the movie isn’t terribly graphic; there is no nudity and more romance than explicit sex. Unfortunately, the MPAA has made it perfectly clear that male nudity deserves its own category in movie ratings, and non-“mainstream” sex is verboten except in NC-17 films.
Carrey and McGregor are totally at ease with each other, and the romance is “played straight,” as much as a story this unbelievable can be. The pairing is facilitated in a same-sex prison (cue prison rape jokes, of which there are a few), but it’s only after the two get out that Steven attempts real shenanigans. The movie does suffer from uneven tone. Carrey fashions Steven into a likable, sympathetic criminal, but the sheer volume of his deception is mind-boggling—and by the end, you don’t blame Phillip in the least for staying the hell away. The script seesaws back and forth from slightly off-color chuckles (aren’t these guys just so flashy in their tight sailor pants?) to genuine sweetness (they are really in love)—and though it strives to show a same-sex relationship as something that just, you know, happens, it also relies on that coupling to provide laughs at the characters’ expense. (“Being gay is expensive!” Steven laments at one point, trying to explain his insurance fraud charges.)
McGregor, Carrey, and Mann turn in unexceptional performances—they are as good as they always are, bearing in mind the fact that Carrey’s acting isn’t as exaggerated as we’re used to. Cynthia Anne Slagter’s set decoration and David C. Robinson’s period costuming is spot-on—you’ll recognize the plaid burlap curtains that were so popular in the 1960s in Steven’s parents’ home, ruffled housedresses on Mann’s Debbie, and the 80s’ ubiquitous B.U.M. Equipment tee shirts. Cinematographer Xavier Pérez Grobet does what he can with the material, but nonetheless it’s seamless, invisible camerawork. The editing plays cheekily with conventional styles, but we’ve seen this before too: the camera frequently pauses on an abrupt action shot, allowing room for the narrator to fill in the audience before that shot is completed (David Fincher’s and Guy Ritchie’s movies over-utilize this technique). Directors Glenn Ficcara and John Requa take a half-hearted jab at George W. Bush: the final title card mentions that Steven was given “an unprecedented life sentence” in Texas under the direction of Governor Bush (I imagine Dubya would be ashamed of a flamboyantly gay con man who outsmarted the Texan prison system).
I Love You, Phillip Morris is not bound to be one of the year’s best, but neither is it one of the worst. It’s an engaging but uneven look at one remarkable life over the last thirty years. Steven Russell’s life as a free man was patently ridiculous, and certainly worth chronicling—but it could have been done better. Carrey and McGregor put forth their best effort, but even their good performances probably won’t draw more than a niche audience, especially considering how little fanfare it is attracting. The real Steven Russell’s every move was loud and astonishing, but I Love You, Phillip Morris will probably flutter in and out of theaters with a whisper.