I Love You Phillip Morris begins as a feverish recollection by a man on his deathbed who may or may not be dying of AIDS.
“Love is a funny thing,” he narrates. “It makes you do things you never thought you’d do before. In fact, love is the reason I’m laying here dying.”
Jim Carrey portrays Steven Russell, the man set to flat line; his character is based on a real life Steven Russell, making the ensuing story even more unbelievable.
Through flashback snippets, the audience reviews Russell’s earlier life, like when he discovers that he was adopted and sadly learns that his real mom is living in the same town. Instead of becoming bitter, he vows to become the best person he can be and pursue a life of eternal happiness.
Voila! He is a police officer married with children; he and his lovely wife (played by Leslie Mann) even have cookies and milk after sex. The perfect marriage? Not so fast. A car crash results in his hospitalization. He has an epiphany: “I’m gay!” he tells his shocked wife.
Jump cut to a scene of kids in a cornfield looking at the sky and trying to figure out what the clouds’ shapes represent. Russell says he sees “a wiener.” And yes, that’s a fluffy one in the sky.
If all of this sounds manic and bizarre, a friendly reminder: this is a film by the screenwriters of Bad Santa — the cult film that had its share of dark humor and out-and-out bad taste. Done with decimating Santa Claus, the writers set their sights on gay political correctness.
The writer/directors take the irreverence a step further here, starting with the lead actor, a straight guy known for his infantile humor whose most recent relationship was with a former Playboy model. However, Carrey, simultaneously the most under- and overrated actor in the world, portrays the charismatic Steven Russell with intelligence.
After Russell leaves wife and kids, he moves to South Beach in Miami with a Latin lover. But the high gay lifestyle becomes too expensive for him and his paramour. “I had a job, but it was not enough for living high on the gay hog as I wanted to. And for a guy without a college education, my options were limited,” Russell explains. “I had no choice. I became a con man.”
His hijinks escalate as he passes forged checks, fraudulent credit cards, and lands in a Texas jail, where he discovers an all-consuming obsession. In prison, Russell meets Phillip Morris (McGregor), a young, gay Southern bottle-blonde belle who knows from experience what happens to young men like him in prison. So he spends a lot of time in the library — as does Russell. It’s love at first sight.
Russell does outrageous things to protect and court his new boyfriend. When he has a crazy inmate beaten for disturbing Morris’s sleep, it moves the fey Phillip to coo like a schoolgirl saved by a jock. “Enough romance — let’ s fuck!” Morris urges his new soulmate. And indeed they do, at the drop of a belt buckle.
To the stars’ credit, they turn what could have been a raunchy, gay caper film, and transform it into something like a rom-com. One of the most touching and, yes, romantic scenes is Carrey and McGregor slow dancing to Johnny Mathis’s “Chances Are” piped into the cellblock.
As soon as he and Morris lock eyes, Russell turns his attentions toward springing himself and his lover from prison and back into his fantasy life in the free world. It’s a gay Catch Me If You Can, a funny and moving The Living End. And best of all, it pokes a stiff middle finger at the Texas prison system.
If Phillip Morris were a French comedy with subtitles it would be hailed as an indie art film with pedigree. And it was, as a hit at Sundance and the French Cannes Film Festival — two years ago.
So why is the film, featuring A-list stars and pulling on Hollywood-approved genres, only now reaching theaters in the U.S.? You figure it out.
This ballsy film has more than cojones. It has two guys who aren’t role models, but real. They may be worthless in the straight world, but they prove their worth to one another. Ain’t love grand? •
I Love You Phillip Morris
Dir. Glenn Ficarra, John Requa; writ. Glenn Ficarra, John Requa (based on a book by Steve McVicker); feat. Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro (R)