Dec 15, 2010
I Love You, Phillip Morris
This biting little satire by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the creators of Bad Santa, is a dark romantic comedy that is truly romantic and truly subversive. For the two people in love are two men, played with gusto and conviction by Jim Carrey and the darling Ewan McGregor.
Carrey must be thinking, "I'm loaded and I'm bored and I'm pushing 50 so I can't be making gazillion dollar crap comedies for much longer, let me see what I can sink my chompers into. What's the worst that could happen?" McGregor, being a European actor, is probably not as burdened by these considerations. Good for both of them. They display balls.
Carrey plays Steven Russell, a married southern police officer who discovers that he is "gay, gay, gay" and also that his calling in life is to be the best con man he can possibly be. He spends more than he has in pursuit of gay fabulousness and has to resort to a life of crime to keep up with it. Since he has never known who he really is, he has no problem becoming someone else, and embezzling everyone in sight. An irredeemable sociopath that lies and disguises himself as a lawyer and a chief financial officer, he falls in love with fellow jail inmate Phillip Morris, (McGregor) a sweet and charming southern queen.
This is an incredibly bizarre true life story. Ficarra and Requa go both for the strangeness of the criminality as well as the normalcy of the romance, and they achieve a zippy, funny, yet disturbing film. The zinger is that the fact that the two guys are gay is the most normal thing that happens in the movie. It seems that in America, if you walk into a room wearing a suit and tie and a briefcase and you claim you are a lawyer, everyone believes you. True, Russell forged documents, but in a culture that prizes ambition above all, a fake resumé may be all it takes to become the CFO of a company. Americans are gullible. After all, we continue to be swindled by the conmen of Wall Street (and most of us seem to take this a lot more in stride than giving equal rights to gay people, which still gives people apoplexy. Go figure). In fact, Russell breezily lies his way through the top, and he instinctively knows he can't be out as gay if he wants to be there. In a nutshell, we are a culture that encourages liars.
Russell went to bizarre and genius lengths to execute his lies, a true con artist. One wonders, in his case and Wall Street's, if all that amazing talent couldn't have been put to better use. It's so much effort to lie and to steal and to cheat.
While McGregor is sweet and charming and very convincing as a man of certain principle in love, Carrey is courageous but not as likable. He is a gifted comedian, but when he is called to do more serious acting, he is not very attractive. Still, he finds the core of a hollow man trapped by appearances and he gives a big, unabashed performance. His Russell pushes Morris into love, as he pushes himself into the most unlikely situations and finds a way to finagle himself out of them. Their affair is very romantic. They write each other letters in jail, and Russell looks out for Morris by lying and cheating. They are genuinely taken by each other and they have a nice chemistry, which is more than you can say about 99% of the couples in any run of the mill Hollywood romantic comedy of today.
This movie's command of tone is assured and brisk. The directors don't have a light touch, but they do have a feisty comic swagger and a sharp sense of satire. It's the actors that bring tenderness, particularly McGregor, and humanity to a movie that is caustic and funny, but a little blunt.
It is worth comparing this romantic comedy, though, with a giant turd like Love and Other Drugs, if only to point out that both are based on true stories but couldn't have more different sensibilities and intentions. Despite the second one having been manufactured with all the supposedly requisite components of a romantic "dramedy", it's a hollow, offensive exercise in Hollywood fakeness, whereas I Love You Phillip Morris is sweetly taken by its improbable couple, and genuinely about love conquers all.