I Love You Phillip Morris. While the movie doesn’t feature full-frontal male nudity, it does boast anatomically-correct fruit arrangements, cloud formations and pencil drawings. It also spotlights big-name actors Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor as real-life gay lovers.
The long-awaited film is finally opening in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York today (with an expanded release next week), nearly two years after it made its US premiere at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and after playing virtually every other country in the world. Depending on who you talk to, the American release was delayed due to overwrought marketing concerns over the movie’s gay-themed storyline, content and/or legal disputes between its various financiers.
One might incorrectly deduce from the movie’s title that it is a cinematic homage to the patron saint of cigarette smokers. Instead, it weaves the too-bizarre-to-be-believed but true tale of Steven Russell (played by Carrey), a formerly heterosexual, married, fundamentalist-Christian policeman who became an openly gay, reformation-proof con man in the wake of a near-death experience. During the first of what would be several prison terms, Russell fell in love with a fellow inmate by the name of Phillip Morris (McGregor).
Russell becomes intent on freeing himself and Morris so they can live happily ever after together. He studies law while in prison and, following his own release, passes himself off as an attorney. Once Russell gets Morris out, the pair enjoys an extravagant lifestyle funded by money Russell is siphoning from the company at which he is employed (incredibly) as Chief Financial Officer.
This sets off a continuous pattern for Russell of getting caught and re-sentenced to prison only to escape through an ingeniously engineered plan in an effort to reunite with Morris. Realizing how boundless Russell’s deceit can be, Morris avoids him… until, that is, Russell employs the ultimate tactic to win his beloved back.
The tone of I Love You Phillip Morris is unexpectedly sunny given the prison setting and its lead character’s general lack of morals. It is also frequently hilarious, none more so than when Morris gushes “That is the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for me!” to Russell shortly after learning his paramour arranged the brutal beating of another inmate who was grating on Morris’s nerves. There is also a very funny scene involving a neighboring prisoner whom Russell secures to “serenade” him and Morris during a romantic evening together, cellblock rules be damned.
Carrey and McGregor give wonderful, no-holds-barred performances. Interestingly, Carrey is at his most sincere here playing a thoroughly insincere person. They also get great support from Leslie Mann (Knocked Up) as Russell’s compassionate wife and Rodrigo Santoro (who played the buff, nearly naked Xerxes in 300) as his pre-incarceration partner who, sadly, died of AIDS.
McGregor, no stranger to gay/bisexual roles, has said of his work on I Love You Phillip Morris: “I like it because it’s a gay film, which is to say it’s a film about two men in love, and I think that’s an important element of it. I also got to French kiss Jim Carrey a lot, and I quite like that too.” McGregor has been quite outspoken — admirably so — in defense of the movie’s more graphic sexual content, most of which has been edited out of the final cut.
I Love You Phillip Morris marks the successful directorial debut of screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who previously wrote Bad Santa and the 2005 remake of The Bad News Bears. While their latest, which is based on a book about Russell by Texas journalist Steven McVicker, includes the cynical, sometimes shocking bluntness that characterizes their earlier films, it is a pleasant surprise to discover how good-natured and genuinely romantic this movie is. That both Ficarra and Requa are heterosexual men makes their fearlessness at delving into a star-crossed gay relationship all the more impressive, although Requa did joke in a Los Angeles Times interview that “(Ficarra and I) spend so much time together that in many ways we have a very successful same-sex relationship.”
Some mainstream moviegoers will likely find the film’s plot, sex scenes and unapologetically gay sensibility off-putting. However, French audiences and Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand were so impressed by Carrey’s and McGregor’s chemistry in I Love You Phillip Morris that the actors were named knights in France’s prestigious National Order of Arts and Letters in February of this year.
Click here to check out the film’s NSFW red band trailer.
on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.