Fast, fun and stylish comedies are in short supply this year, so I was really looking forward to I Love You, Phillip Morris. But for all its wackiness, witty editing, colorful production design and terrific performances, by the end it was a movie I had suffered through more than enjoyed. That sounds worse than it is. I liked ILYPM a lot. I just wished I’d loved it.
Which is not to say the movie is a failure. I think it may have beeen the intention of co-directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra to tell a dark story all along. And the increasingly troubling gap between the protagonist’s inner reality and the flashy filmmaking may be a brilliant device to unease us. If so, it worked.
The true story of a devoted husband, father and deputy cop, I Love You, Phillip Morris begins just before the moment of this upright citizen’s transformation to outrageous gay conman. The outrageousness is not the gayness, but the audacity of the frauds he perpetuates. Even more outrageous are his legendary escapes from jail—four times in five years, all on a Friday the Thirteenth (because his boyfriend, Phillip Morris, whom he meets in prison, was born on a Friday the Thirteenth).
Jim Carrey gives a balls-to-the-walls performance as Steven Jay Russell, the church organist-turned-gay-felon, attacking the character with his usual terrier-like zeal, but also with a deep infusion of darkness. Carrey has always been able to tap into a certain twisted place, and in the past it has divided critics and box offices, most notoriously in The Cable Guy, which, coming on the heels of the wildly popular Ace Ventura, left audiences reeling.
Carrey’s attempts at straighter serious roles have thus since had to be negotiated with a public who loves the clown too much to let him go, and has done best in roles that merge the two, such as The Truman Show. But Carrey has obviously always had bigger ambitions, and in his first real role since 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he leaves behind all caution and sinks deeply and gratefully into this weird, complex movie.
Co-writers John Requa and Glenn Ficarra (who also wrote Cats & Dogs, Bad Santa and Bad News Bears) jump at their debut chance to direct, and come out with splash. In both script and shooting, Requa and Ficarra are very good at cutting interstitial fat and jumping from telling scene to telling scene, with speed and style.
Comparisons have been made to Brokeback Mountain, which I guess means people are grasping just to convey that it’s a story about two gay men. There’s very little resemblance between ILYPM’s flamboyant, uncompromisingly gay comedic love story and the dark, tortured tragedy of the two cowboys. ILYPM is absolutely unapologetic about its homosexuality, with graphic sex scenes and jokes and characters completely comfortable with their identities. This explains the movie’s long journey from its European debut to current American release, which required some severe editing from the European version.
It’s been fourteen years since Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage (the American update of La Cage aux Folles), which upset some in the LGBT community with its exaggerated stereotypes, played by Robin Williams, Nathan Lane and Hank Azaria. Enough said. Let’s see if America is ready for a gay romance with no drag, no lisping and no identity issues—or, at least, none about sexuality. These gay lovers openly make love, declare their love (thus the title), slow-dance, and snuggle. ILYPM’s real cinematic analogue, in style as well as story, is Catch Me If You Can. Steven Jay Russell is a gay modern Frank Abagnale, only an unrehabilitated, still defiant one. And ILYPH takes on CMIYC’s relentlessly upbeat tone and sunny art direction.
Leslie Mann is touchingly adorable as Steven’s devout and loving wife. And unbelievably gorgeous Brazilian Rodrigo Santoro has great moments as Steven’s first real boyfriend. But for me, it’s Ewan McGregor’s performance as the shy, naïve romantic object of desire, Phillip Morris, that grounds the story. You immediately understand why Steven would want to take care of Phillip, who is all doe eyes and sugary Southern accent. And as he begins to learn the truth about his lover, it’s Phillip’s response that provides a much needed moral touchstone.
Otherwise, our dawning realization of the dark impulses that drive Steven’s relentless and audacious escapades threatens to overpower the fun. As it is, somewhere in its final reel Steven’s story begins to feel punishing. When will he stop? Is he a born liar and scoundrel? Or a sensitive man disastrously damaged by the circumstances of his childhood, willing to do anything for love? The movie leaves it up to you. 4/5