A whirlwind romance
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, December 10, 2010
In "I Love You Phillip Morris," Jim Carrey plays Steven Russell, a married, church-going good ol' boy who, after a near-fatal car accident, comes out of the closet as a gay man, turning to increasingly brazen scams to support his newly fabulous lifestyle. After he's caught and sent to prison, he meets and falls in love - we're talking obsessive, head-over-heels love - with fellow convict Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor).
Now hold on a second. Though the preceding paragraph sounds like a recipe for disaster (and indeed, some of the movie's trailers make it look like one), the movie is actually surprisingly sweet. Sure, it's over the top at times. When Carrey's smiling sociopath pays a fellow prisoner to beat the stuffing out of another con whose nocturnal screaming has been keeping his boyfriend - and, in short order, his bunkmate - awake, Phillip confronts Steven with the crime, then says, after pausing for comic effect, "That is the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for me."
Have I mentioned that the movie is written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who also penned the irreverent 2003 black comedy (and Christmas cult favorite) "Bad Santa"? Enough said.
I should also point out that the film is based on actual events.
Yes, there is a real Phillip Morris (no relation to the tobacco company). There's also a real Steven Russell. He's currently serving a 144-year sentence in a Texas penitentiary. Most of that is for the four escapes he made to be with Phillip after his beloved was released and Steven was thrown in jail a second time. What for? Embezzling more than $800,000 from a firm he lied and charmed his way into as chief financial officer.
"This really happened," reads an on-screen title, as the movie begins. And then, as if the filmmakers know that you're not going to buy any of it: "It really did."
Truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction.
In this case, much stranger. The movie strains credulity, at times above and beyond the jaw-dropping events on which it is based. Narrated with a jaunty insouciance by Carrey's character, it's structured more as farce than documentary, with the storyteller conveniently "forgetting" to mention certain facts from time to time, until they pack the most dramatic - or, in this case, comedic - punch. Music is used prominently, and sometimes cheesily, to underscore the film's frequent absurdities, as when Steven and Phillip slow-dance around their cell to the strains of a romantic oldie playing on a boombox in the cell next door.
It's cartoonish at times, dead serious at others. Near the end, the movie takes a sharp turn toward what looks like melodrama, only to veer back to comedy with a narrative "gotcha" that will either tick you off or come across as brilliant.
Just keep telling yourself: This really happened.
What saves the film from itself are the performances of its stars. I would say that Carrey exercises admirable restraint, except he doesn't. Rather, his "gay, gay, gay, gay, gay" portrayal (to use the character's self-assessment) is appropriately unrestrained. Steven is, after all, a con man. He has to be able to talk anyone into anything, and Carrey does just that; he makes you believe in someone who is, quite literally, unbelievable.
As Phillip, McGregor is a simple delight: gentle, grounded and good. (Phillip's initial sentence was for failure to return a rental car.) If Steven's actions - not to mention Carrey's voice-over - are sometimes insane, we process them, or rather feel them, through the more sober filter of Phillip's heart. He takes on our astonishment and turns it into acceptance.
There's plenty to scratch your head about here. Is it a drama? A comedy? And if it's a farce, what's it making fun of? The conventions of the romantic comedy, perhaps. If nothing else, it deserves credit for not being "The Bounty Hunter."
"Love" may be too strong a word, but there's enough to like about "Phillip Morris" that I think we can be friends.
Contains frequent obscenity and sex talk, sex scenes and violence.