Film: I Love You Phillip Morris
Directors: Glen Ficarra, John Requa
Starring: Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor
Review: Michael Allard
Runtime: 101 minutes
Jim Carrey has continued the tendency which began with The Truman Show to surprise his critics every couple of years. Whether it was the lauded Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or the reviled The Number 23, by starring in independent/offbeat films, Carrey has tried to show that he’s more than just Ace Ventura, or some fuck-up learning to do what’s right in a high-concept romantic comedy. Oddly enough, I Love You Phillip Morris is Carrey’s first unorthodox role that’s simultaneously focused through his comic acting, and thanks to the film’s sheer humour the casting really pays off.
It’s the directorial debut of the writers that invented Bad Santa, and like that film, if you’re in good company and the humour suits your taste then you’ll have a great night. The film does lack Bad Santa’s stylistic humour, where the overall tone is at one with the jokes and slapstick. What’s even more frustrating is that its unimaginable, fascinating true-story origins deserve more than the knockabout comedy treatment, even if the comedy in itself is dark and thought-provoking.
Carrey’s protagonist, Steven Jay Russell, is a con man, and narrates the entire film with an appropriate amount of audience manipulation. This device is sometimes used for witty means, but more than that it feels like it’s filling in for scenes that have been left on the cutting room floor or never shot at all, as the voiceover negates the need for an organic kind of storytelling. In the space of the first ten minutes, we’re shown that: Russell discovered as a young child that he was adopted, became a police officer with a Christian family in Texas in order to discover his biological mother, had a car accident, subsequently came out as gay to his wife, and then jetted off to live in Florida with his boyfriend (Lost’s Rodrigo Santoro), making all his money through both petty and major fraud.
It’s an amazing sequence of events, and the remainder of Russell’s life story becomes only more interesting; but rather than providing any detailed characterisation or a runtime beyond 100 minutes, the film thrives off a whimsical atmosphere of unbelievability coupled with the reminders that this all really happened. It’s a maddening thing to do, and Ficarra/Requa could learn a few lessons from Stander, another policeman-turned-criminal story with an important socio-political context, but whose audience can work out for itself how incredulous the tale is, rather than being assaulted by a repetitive “And then I did this!” voiceover. Russell manages to escape prison countless times, and Catch Me If You Can similarly showed how the cons are done whilst skirting the issue of how the con man learnt them in the first place. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but wonder how a more experienced director would’ve adapted Steve McVicker’s book.
The film does carry another, important dimension, in Steven’s relationship with Phillip Morris (in an uninspiring turn by Ewan McGregor), who Russell met in prison. It’s the film’s heart and soul, and the couple’s sexuality is admirably expressed with two fingers up to anyone who dares to judge it. But, rather than being incidental to the film’s selling point, gay love is portrayed as one of its wacky features. In a film that second-guesses its audience, it would be a mistake to judge this as homophobic, since the focus is on two very particular characters, and one unreliable narration. But rather than seeming especially audacious, I Love You Phillip Morris can’t help but exemplify the inability for the average star-studded American film to revolve around a gay couple without constantly drawing attention to their sexual orientation.