Film Review: “I Love You Phillip Morris”

by Jason LeRoy on December 3, 2010

Rodrigo Santoro and Jim Carrey in I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS

starring Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro

directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa

rated R

I Love You Phillip Morris has been a long time coming. Filmed several years ago, it had its domestic premiere all the way back in January 2009 at Sundance, and despite having been released internationally shortly thereafter, is only now getting its bow in U.S. theaters — nearly two years later and after countless lapsed distribution deals and release dates.

This has been a cause of building delight to those, such as myself, who’ve been anticipating its release. It must be too hot to handle! American audiences just aren’t ready! This is gonna be some explosive stuff! All we knew is that it was the strange-but-true story of a man named Steven Russell (Carrey), a gay con man who finds love in prison with the titular Phillip Morris (McGregor). It turns out that I Love You Phillip Morris is about so much more than that. So much, in fact, that it seems to lose track. What an interesting misfire this is.

As the film begins, Steven is a born-again Christian police officer who plays the organ at his church and is married to a dim but devoted Bible-thumper (the always exquisite Leslie Mann, reuniting with Carrey after The Cable Guy). But after a near-death experience in a car crash, Steven decides to come out as a gay man.

In a matter of seconds, we see him sashaying down the sidewalks of Miami with the unfairly beautiful Rodrigo Santoro on his arm (see photo above). Steven has never felt happier, but there’s just one problem: he can’t afford the lifestyle he’s chosen. And by “the lifestyle he’s chosen,” I mean a lifestyle of wealth. You’d think he somehow time-traveled to the future, got his entire gay education from The A-List, then returned to his time dedicated to living it out (okrrr!).

So, to keep himself and his arm-candy boyfriend in the lifestyle to which they’d become accustomed, Steven starts pulling cons. As it turns out, he’s a natural, some kind of ultra-slippery criminal mastermind. But not enough of a mastermind to not get caught, as eventually he finds himself behind bars. And it’s here that he meets the man we’re supposed to believe is the love of his life: Phillip Morris, a sweet, shy, good-natured southern boy played with appealing vulnerability by McGregor.

It’s love at first sight, or whatever passes for love at first sight when you’re in prison. And soon, Steven and Phillip are out of prison and living an idyllic dream life. But, once again, there’s a problem: Steven is bankrolling their lifestyle with cons. If it sounds like I’m telling you the whole movie, I assure you I’ve only described maybe the first half of it. Even if I wanted to describe the final act, I doubt I could remember it all. Con upon con, twist upon twist, it is a furious scramble of head-scratching plot developments (handled with maddening glibness by writer/directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, previously best known as the screenwriters of Bad Santa) as Steven does whatever he must to preserve his dream life with Phillip.

I Love You Phillip Morris is rather unlike anything I’ve ever seen; it’s Catch Me If You Can as directed by Gregg Araki. It is tonally inconsistent to the point of schizophrenia, cramming countless genres and climaxes into one frenzied 98-minute film. There is something admirable in the boldness of the storytelling; this is not a film that is concerned with crowd-pleasing. Its overall feel is confrontational bordering on anarchic.

Despite nice supporting turns from the underused Mann and especially McGregor, who gives a compellingly heartfelt performance, this film lives and dies with Jim Carrey’s portrayal of Steven Russell. Carrey is every bit as schizophrenic and anarchic as the film itself; this is an instance of a lead actor matching his film’s tone perfectly, but to a fault.

The central problem in Carrey’s performance is that we are expected to believe Steven Russell got away with his many genuinely mind-blowing cons simply through the force of his wit and undeniable charisma. And while we definitely see the wit, I’d argue this is the least charismatic Carrey has ever been. This is an aggressively unpleasant and occasionally grotesque performance, with Carrey way overplaying scene after scene, with his scarily intense joker smile (see above) and general air of insanity. You find yourself wondering why any of his marks, or even Phillip, would ever trust such an obvious lunatic. In my imaginary life as a casting director, I’d have fought hard for Edward Norton in this role. Carrey, despite committing himself, can’t help but seem miscast.

Perhaps the best way to interpret I Love You Phillip Morris, or at least the only way I can warm to it, is to embrace it as a satirical allegory about the American dream, or to be more specific, the extreme superficiality and materialism of the American gay identity. Steven Russell believes the only way to be a gay man is to be a preening beacon of wealth and excess, and repeatedly risks everything he has to create the illusion that he has so much more. That is what drives him, what gives him purpose, and what undoes him. Which is perhaps why the film’s title seems so disingenuous or at least sarcastic: there appears to be only one thing that Steven Russell loves, and sadly, it is not Phillip Morris.

RIYL: stranger-than-fiction true crime stories.

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