Movies just don’t typically exhibit the wild, go for broke attitude on full display in I Love You Phillip Morris and get away with it. So it’s no surprise that distributors had no idea how to handle the movie, which premiered at Sundance in 2009, or that it’s run through a ringer of missed release dates and legal action before finally hitting theaters this weekend.
Yet, somehow, co-writers/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have turned a script comprised of wildly fluctuating tones, divergent scenes of broad comic flourishes and carefully calibrated drama, satire mixed with heartfelt personal insight, into a final product that’s a sharp, smart comedy. The rails could have come off Phillip Morris in so many ways, it’s a veritable miracle that the film sticks together as well as it does.
Jim Carrey stars as Steven Russell, a Virginia policeman and church organist with a wife (Leslie Mann) and daughter, who reconsiders his life and comes out of the closet after a bad car wreck. Not only does Steven come out, he goes full-on flamboyant, leading a heady Florida lifestyle that requires ample funding. To secure sufficient monies for spa visits, haute shopping sprees and high-end brunches, our hero turns to con artistry, a pursuit that lands him in jail. There, happenstance thrusts him into the arms of sensitive, doe-eyed blonde Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor) and a romance is born.
If for no other reason, the picture, based on the book by Steve McVicker, is notable for the uncompromising ease with which it treats Steven’s homosexuality. Where gay characters are so often defined by their sexual preference, subject to maudlin narratives of injustice or niche affairs centered on promiscuity and the virtues of a shirtless lifestyle, Steven’s gayness is but an attribute, a small component of a complex, maniacal larger picture.
The romance between Steven and Phillip is treated seriously, even sensitively, and the actors are given the opportunity to make its more heartrending moments resonate. There’s a genuine connection there, comprised of a shared loneliness, a dollop of Steven’s protective instincts and some good, old-fashioned sexual tension. Yet, the film stands apart because of the ease with which Ficarra and Requa blend the romance into a zany, freewheeling spirit that alternately recalls Mel Brooks in his prime, and the charming screwball capers of the studio era.
At times, the movie unleashes Carrey, making full use of his preternatural knack for fast-paced explosions of dialogue and his inspired pitchman demeanor. Steven understands the fundamental truth that if you say something loudly and with conviction, people will likely believe it. The actor, lately stuck in a rut of comic retreads and low-grade dramas, never lets you forget that the flamboyant, always scheming exterior exists for love. The part is the first to offer Carrey the chance to alternately flex his considerable comedic and dramatic chops, and he combines Steven’s more earnest and quixotic qualities into an affecting, if still (appropriately) mystifying whole.
The film reflects Steven’s ethos, plunging head-on through the narrative’s convolutions with such unabashed glee that they transcend any latent disbelief. The filmmakers hit the comic beats with aplomb, combining pratfalls with elaborate montage, lingering where appropriate and cutting to keep the pace brisk. It’s a testament to their skill as first time directors that Carrey diving off a roof, missing a garbage dump and landing on pavement feels not the least bit incongruously linked to the sweet moments that pop up later.
The film is a sunny, slick looking affair, full of glossy interiors and a style that’s part Chanel ad, part brightly colored slapstick romp, unafraid of the occasional visual pun (i.e. a penis cloud). I Love You Phillip Morris is an odd blend, one of the oddest to come around in a while, but it’s also that rarest of feats: a genuinely original piece of work.
The Upside: The movie cleverly blends multiple tones and styles into a surprisingly cohesive whole.
The Downside: The film is largely kept on a lighthearted plane, making it hard to be deeply emotionally affected by what goes on.
On the Side: The film has had a long, tortured route to theaters since it premiered at Sundance in 2009. A simple Google search will tell you more about it.