Monday, March 29, 2010
Review - I Love You Phillip Morris
"This really happened" a caption tells us at the start of I Love You Phillip Morris, before being followed by an insistent, "It really did." You can understand the filmmakers' desire to push that point home. Even when you know you're watching a story that has its basis in fact, many of the events that occur in this larger-than-life tale are still hard to swallow. It begins normally enough, with Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) recounting the story of his life, a life that seems to conform to the American ideal. A church-going police officer, Steven and his doting wife (Leslie Mann) appear to have it all, but the first cracks in this perfect façade can be spotted when we witness Steven vigorously screwing somebody from behind in a motel room. The person he's screwing isn't his wife. The person he's screwing isn't even a woman. "Oh" Steven's voiceover announces, "did I forget to mention I'm gay?"
Steven's whole life has been a lie, and when a car crash forces him to re-evaluate the choices he has made, he decides to embrace his long-hidden homosexual desires. Leaving his family and moving to Miami, Steven begins living it up with his new boyfriend Jimmy (Rodrigo Santoro), but he soon discovers the disappointing downside to his new world; "Being gay is really expensive." As Steven becomes a master fraudster to fund his lifestyle, switching identities and faking insurance claims, Jim Carrey is in his element. The actor finds a frantic comic edge in Russell's most desperate moments, but he never overplays, and he keeps the character recognisably real; a man driven to ridiculous extremes by his deep obsessions, which is where the title character comes in.
When Steven's trail of forgery finally catches up with him, he ends up in jail, but as a man who sees every angle it isn't long before Steven is enjoying a comfortable existence on the inside. In a very funny sequence, Steven gives a nervous neophyte inmate a guided tour of his new surroundings, telling him the price of everything and then revealing the alternative price: "or you can suck his cock." It's only with the appearance of Phillip Morris – some half an hour into the movie – that Steven discovers a new destiny, and he dedicates himself to pulling whatever stunt is necessary to keep them free, together and affluent. Phillip is played by Ewan McGregor with a sunny, slightly feminine charm, and McGregor actually does well to make his character register in the movie at all. Despite being eponymous, the filmmakers don't seem particularly interested in Phillip Morris. We never learn a great deal about him, and he basically exists as a catalyst for Steven's criminal behaviour. Crucially, Carrey and McGregor work brilliantly together – the intensity of one meshing with the fey vulnerability of the other – and between them they manage to sell the deep infatuation that is beneath Steven's increasingly outlandish antics.
The core of real emotion they provide also helps to keep I Love You Phillip Morris on course whenever it threatens to spin off the rails, which is often. The film marks the directorial debut of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the pair who wrote Bad Santa, and whose latest film is characterised by the same unlikely mixture of pitch-black humour and sentimentality. They can switch from light to dark at the drop of a hat, via gear changes that are sometimes jarringly abrupt, but they lack discipline in their storytelling, and the narrative is often allowed to spin off at strange tangents and get bogged down with a flurry of incidents. At a certain point, Steven escaped from prison and was re-caught so many times in such a short space of time that I started to lose track, and this habit of flitting from one con to another without a pause for breath makes the film feel unfocused and shallow. There's also a critical structural flaw in I Love You Phillip Morris, concerning a wild last act twist that marks Steven's voiceover as the work of a hugely unreliable narrator. As a piece of writing, it feels like a cheat, although given that this is a story about a man whose life was an endless web of deception, perhaps that's the point.
Ficarra and Requa's uneven storytelling does prevent I Love You Phillip Morris from developing into the fully satisfying gay romantic caper it might have been, but their style does have its virtues too, and the very unpredictability of the film ensures it holds the interest. I Love You Phillip Morris is consistently funny, clever and surprising, and it's also rather daring in its straightforward depiction of a homosexual relationship. The love affair between Steven Russell and Phillip Morris is defined not by the fact that it's a gay relationship, but simply by its passion, lust and tenderness, and you never get the sense that the filmmakers or the actors are playing safe or pulling their punches in the way they have approached it. Sadly, such a bold take on the subject has also ensured the film's chances of getting decent distribution have been severely damaged, and the filmmakers reportedly had to make cuts to earn an R rating ahead of a limited American release. Are we really so squeamish about seeing same-sex relationships depicted on screen? Can we not just all grow up and take the film on its merits? I Love You Phillip Morris is a comedy with balls, a heart and a sense of purpose, and for all its flaws, I hope it finds an audience.