At the start of I Love You Phillip Morris, the words “This really happened” appear on-screen. And to reinforce the point, the filmmakers also added the words “It really did“. Indeed, this Jim Carrey vehicle is the type of film you would not believe unless you knew it to be true. Additionally, for those who were expecting this to be another Carrey comedy featuring the actor’s trademark over-the-top, rubber-faced antics, prepare to be surprised. Based on the novel Prison Breaks as well as the memoirs of the main character, 2010’s I Love You Phillip Morris functions as a reminder of how good Carrey can be if he’s not tied to a generic Hollywood crowd-pleaser. Without a doubt, this is a unique motion picture which melds drama and dark comedy in a surprisingly effective fashion. Armed with a zippy pace, the film barrels through sufficient plot to form a miniseries, and, though it’s a tad uneven, this is a supremely entertaining motion picture.
After surviving a nasty car accident, married former police officer Steven Russell (Carrey) has a life-changing epiphany. No longer able to conceal his secret homosexuality, Steven comes out to his understanding wife Debbie (Mann), splits from his family, and moves with his boyfriend to Miami Beach. He finds his new lifestyle to be murder on his bank account, though, and Steven is soon committing every type of fraud under the sun until his actions are discovered and he is subsequently arrested. In prison, Steven meets fellow homosexual inmate Phillip Morris (McGregor), and the two instantly fall in love. Once their sentences are over, Steven and Phillip move in together. Thus begins a whirlwind love affair both in and out of prison, with Russell’s inability to avoid crime continuously affecting their relationship.
The truly original, unique I Love You Phillip Morris denotes the directorial debut for Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who wrote such motion pictures as Bad Santa and Bad News Bears. The comedy peppered throughout I Love You Phillip Morris is therefore marvellously dark and nasty. The premise is familiar (consider it the gay cousin of Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can), but the tone is what allows it to stand out – it’s kind of a darker, weirder Catch Me if You Can with the sick-joke nastiness of Bad Santa and the type of side characters you’d expect to see in a movie by the Coens or the Farrelly Brothers. Ficarra and Requa were able to keep the film frothy throughout while still developing an at times affecting sincerity. There’s a self-assuredness to the material that’s very heartening. As a comedy, I Love You Phillip Morris is genuinely clever and sly. As a biopic, it’s beguiling and informative. And finally, as a love story, the film is genuine and heartfelt.
Admittedly, the jam-packed plotting does not always make for a smooth-running picture, as Requa and Ficarra ended up relying a lot on voiceover narration. Also, the tonal shifts are at times rather sudden. Aside from these flaws, this is a sure-footed motion picture with a number of notable comedic moments. The matter-of-fact sexuality is admirably blunt, even if the traits of homosexuality are occasionally used for cheap laughs. As first-time filmmakers, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa exhibit a knack for smooth photography and imaginative montage (the assemblage of Steven’s various prison escapes is particularly jaunty), as well as a firm, savvy understanding of comedic composition. I Love You Phillip Morris also benefits from the bouncy score courtesy of Nick Urata. In particular, the recurrent main theme is highly enjoyable.
The believability of the relationship between Steven and Phillip is one of the strongest elements of the film, as there’s no doubt about how the men feel about one another. The motivations of the two are palpable and understandable – we can grasp the reasons why they do what they do. Of course, the casting helped tremendously in this department. Carrey adopted a southern drawl for his role of Steven Russell, and eased up on his trademark overcaffeination. Carrey’s performance is eccentric (though comparatively restrained) and charismatic; blending Carrey’s best absurdist stuff with the emotional range witnessed in such movies as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Carrey’s work is particularly admirable in the sense that he was able to make the otherwise deplorable role into someone likable – no matter how many lies he tells or how much destruction he causes, it’s possible to be moved by the more tragic moments in his life. Yet, while Carrey is definitely the star of the film, Ewan McGregor is the emotional anchor. McGregor delivered a tender, sweet performance as the soft-spoken Phillip Morris. Also in the cast is Leslie Mann (Judd Apatow’s wife) who’s charming as Steven Russell’s former wife.
One would think that, in 2010, homosexuality would not be an issue in movies anymore. Yet, studio executives in Hollywood fretted over what to do with I Love You Phillip Morris for a couple of years. Due to the film’s frank depiction of love and sex between two consenting adult males (one of whom happens to be a borderline psychotic conman), it has been shuffled around for a while seeking a potential distributor. It’s fortunate the film was eventually released, as it’s more thoughtful and a lot less unsettling than the parade of pathetic heterosexual romantic comedies that blemish multiplexes every year. Unfortunately, it flopped hopelessly. Admittedly, the lightning-fast pace prevents the film from being anything too substantial, but I Love You Phillip Morris remains a sweet, at times amusing piece of entertainment.