I Love You Phillip Morris is based on the true story of Steven Jay Russell (Jim Carrey), a man who appears to be narrating his story as he dies in an emergency room for reasons that will remain vague until the end of the picture. Russell flashes us back to his early adult years as a supposedly happily married police officer in Virginia Beach who’s enjoying a domestic existence that’s a near parody of the content suburban family man who has it all: a blond, adoring, aggressively Christian wife, Debbie (Leslie Mann); a few fawning, dispiritingly boring neighbors; a well-tended generic home; and a tot to scamper around the living room come Christmas morning.
As the ER episode suggests, not all is well with Steven. An adopted child, he uses his connections in law enforcement to track his real mother down so he can beg her for an explanation. Sex with Debbie is functional and unenthusiastic, and it’s clear, from his expressions during her endless bedtime prayers, that Steven more or less sees religion as an obligation, or, more bluntly, a crock of shit. Then, a bombshell: We see Steven having vigorous sex with an unknown person from behind (we’re initially thinking maybe the neighbor’s wife that we saw earlier) who turns out to be an impressively jacked man. Steven, as his narration then rather crudely announces, is “gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay.”
An incident soon compels Steven to shed his domestic hypocrisy, and one of the initial pleasurable surprises of the picture is the expediency with which it frees Steven of his straight-man role-playing. The joke is that this newfound freedom paves the way for endless other forms of roleplaying. Steven, rebelling against his former life as peppy Joe Dullard, isn’t content to merely be a cop who happens to date men; he must be the chicest, sexiest, most fashionable, most in-the-know gay man he can think of, which is, of course, impossible on a police officer’s salary. So Steven moves to Florida, hooks up with a hunk, and begins a life of impersonations and rip-offs that will have him forever incarcerated or on the run.
There’s enough incident in the first 25 minutes of this movie for 10 full pictures, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. The tone is strange, occasionally jolting in its sincerity, but the situations are also often cluttered, glib, and haphazard, sped through so quickly that the sudden appearance of AIDS is discombobulating rather than moving. The film slows down when Steven lands in prison, quickly acclimates to his surroundings, and soon finds himself attracted to the naïve, strikingly blond Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a former secretary who was scammed into taking the fall for his corrupt boss and lover. The attraction is immediate, and Steven, who voraciously pursues any and everything that he wants, sets upon wooing Phillip with a devotion that briefly gives the film a lift.
Carrey and McGregor initially have an erotic chemistry, and the pairing of these actors is easily the film’s best idea. Their energies are strikingly different: Carrey is an inventive wild man who often overpowers and transcends the material he’s given, while McGregor is more withdrawn and quietly forceful, a good actor, yes, but one who is more often at the mercy of his material. And this yin-yang is just right for the characters, as Steven is the inventive, probably brilliant narcissist who quickly manipulates Phillip into playing the part of the willfully clueless blond house-bound cutie-pie—a role that returns them both to the pretentious metaphorical prisons they were originally fleeing.
That’s a great foundation for a comedy, particularly for an insidious culture that likes to fancy itself as tolerant and progressive. But I Love You Phillip Morris is nearly as self-delusional, and there’s a smugness here that leaves a troubling aftertaste. The filmmakers, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, are clearly pleased with themselves for making what is essentially a variation of Catch Me If You Can with a gay couple played by two famous straight celebrities at its center. But the picture is too flip and ultimately puritan. Ficarra and Requa are aiming for a purposefully seesawing tone that veers unpredictably from shtick to melodrama to tragedy, and, in the right hands, that sort of roller coaster can be wonderfully satisfying and even brilliant (think, to use obvious examples, the Hal Ashby picture The Landlord or Jonathan Demme films such as Melvin and Howard and Something Wild). The filmmakers seem to think they’re parodying and transcending various stereotypes, but they’re really indulging them, whether it’s the fat, profane black prisoner (who admittedly briefly steals the movie), Mann’s house wife (who admittedly has a few, fleeting, moments of grace—please, someone, give this woman a role), or McGregor’s courtly, effeminate Southern gentleman.
The portrayal of Steven and Phillip’s relationship, after those promising early moments, is ultimately shrill and marginal. You’d think—given the desperate, loveless sex that we see Steven having near the beginning of the film, and after the heartbreak he endures over the loss of a past lover—that the filmmakers would allow us to experience Steven and Phillip’s newfound happiness, and there is one moment, of them kissing and dancing in their jail cell, but it’s in quotation marks. There are no unguarded moments of intimacy, and this disappointment allows you to ponder other frustrations: the choppy pace, the unstable tone, the uninviting photography, and, most obviously, the fact that American movies still aren’t in a place in which a gay male couple is allowed to fuck as a straight couple can—though, admittedly, there isn’t much sex, or truthful depictions of intimacy, of any kind in American movies these days.
Yet, somehow, Jim Carrey gives a good performance that might’ve been great in a more stable and progressive movie. A funny thing happened to Carrey at some point in his career: He became conventionally handsome. And this development has, if anything, allowed him to become a more surprising actor. There’s a contrast now, as Carrey no longer looks the part of the tangled dweeb he often (usually superbly) plays, and so that roiling frustration and disconnection seems somewhat buried to us behind a façade of a man, aging gracefully, who has it figured out. Carrey doesn’t, and never has, do the sort of humor that’s hip these days, in which we, the audience, are invited to congratulate ourselves for our detachment from, and superiority to, unconvincing working-class buffoons like Michael Scott of the never-ending American incarnation of The Office or its succession of rip-offs.
Carrey jumps in, seemingly holding nothing back, and a number of his moments here are heartbreaking. You can feel his Steven drinking Phillip in on first sight, just as you’re allowed to intuitively grasp that his scams are the products of a brilliant man who resolutely despises himself. Carrey understands the physical language of the intelligent yet disenfranchised: that nervous, uncertain energy that’s meant to pass off as sleek confidence. Carrey can walk across a prison hall in this film and say more about Steven’s inescapable interior imprisonment (which only partially has to do with his sexual orientation; at least the film gets that right) than any of Ficarra and Requa’s half-baked jokes could ever hope to. I Love You Phillip Morris is an uneven, misguided movie that you might want to see anyway. It’s frustrating yet oddly affecting.
I Love You Phillip Morris isn't especially appealing to look at, as the filmmakers and cinematographer Xavier Pérez Grobet elected to shoot the film in a palette that seems to be striving for a look that could be described as washed-out pop art. The primary colors, especially the blues and whites (there's a cloud motif running through the film), are strong and vibrant yet gritty and seemingly harshly/naturally lit, and the result is a hard yellowish tint that's appropriate for the prison scenes but strange everywhere else. The DVD, in the Lionsgate tradition, offers a thoroughly fine, clean, pristine transfer though. The sound is even better: lush and enveloping, but not inappropriately showy.
The audio commentary, which is logically primarily presided over by the filmmakers, is appealingly sincere and anecdotal. Judging from what I heard here, I think it's clear that John Requa and Glenn Ficarra weren't after the arch tone that the film sometimes courts. I Love You Phillip Morris was intended as a sincere, legitimate romantic comedy, and that ambition dictated the various changes and condensations that are necessary in turning any story into a film. There are the usual stories of on-set challenges and ad libs, and the group is touchingly determined to convince the audience that much of the more outlandish material is absolutely true. Having heard the commentary, I suspect that the reason the film doesn't work is that it was honed and pruned so much that few scenes were allowed to breath. A shade under 100 minutes is too short for a picture that's clearly courting a rambling off-kilter 1970s vibe. The deleted scenes confirm this suspicion, as they are mostly bits that have been trimmed from the existing scenes. These moments aren't technically needed, but they should have remained, and this particularly shortchanges the subplot where Steven loses a lover to AIDS. The making-of featurette is an inoffensive but forgettable puff piece, and the trailers are trailers. Still, the extras offer a nice indication of what the makers of this film were after.
A thoroughly decent presentation of a well-intentioned misfire.