When it was announced that Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the guys who wrote “Bad Santa,” were taking on the true story of a lovesick gay con man in “I Love You, Phillip Morris,” it was an easy assumption that the duo wouldn’t take a tame, PC approach to the material.
And now that the movie is finally opening in U.S. theaters – after going through various legal and distribution hurdles following its premiere at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival – we have a film that promises to be polarizing: Audiences who don’t like “homosexuals” and who don’t want to see queer affection or storylines on the big screen aren’t going to like it, and super-uptight gays may get their noses bent out of shape by the film’s general sense of outrageousness and by the duplicity of its shifty protagonist.
For the rest of us, however, “I Love You, Phillip Morris” is an exhilaratingly bonkers movie about finding yourself, finding true love, and finding a way to be with the person you care about most, even if all of those involve chicanery, embezzlement, and periodically escaping from prison.
The film begins with an on-screen reminder that this is a true story, followed by a second reminder that, no really, it is. Once you’ve taken in the saga of Steven Russell (Jim Carrey), you’ll have a hard time believing it – but really, truly, all this stuff actually happened.
Russell finds out during his childhood that he’s adopted, so he goes out of his way to be a model son and citizen, becoming a policeman, singing with the church choir, and marrying the devout and devoted Debbie (Leslie Mann). Alas, he’s cheating on her on the side with men, and after a near-fatal car accident, Russell decides he’s no longer going to live a lie, and he’s going to be “gay gay GAY gay gay.”
For that much gay, he’s got to move to South Beach, get a hunky boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro), and live the high life – so high, in fact, that he starts running credit card scams, faking accidents, and generally pulling any kind of con job imaginable to fund his lush living. Eventually, these scams catch up to Russell, and he finds himself behind bars, where he meets the man who would change his life forever, the meek and soft-spoken Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor).
Russell pulls strings so that they can be cellmates, and once they’re both out of prison, they set up house together. But Russell is soon back to his old tricks, becoming CFO of a health insurance company and skimming millions out of the till. Phillip doesn’t find out any of this until the cops show up, and to make matters worse, he also learns that Russell put his name on some of the accounts where the stolen money got transferred, so they both get arrested.
Phillip gets out of jail first, so Russell escapes over and over again in an attempt to win back his affections. And then things take an exceedingly bizarre turn that I won’t give away here, but it’s a testament to Ficarra and Requa’s writing – and Carrey’s skill as an unreliable narrator – that the movie never completely goes off the rails.
This is the kind of “edgy” material that could turn offensive or sophomoric or sappy with just one wrong move, but the filmmakers and their very capable cast manage to keep all the plates spinning. “Phillip Morris” represents a real triumph for Carrey – this may be the first movie that allows the actor to balance the larger-than-life qualities he brought to roles in “Liar Liar” and “The Cable Guy” to his more vulnerable, nuanced performances in “The Truman Show” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” (The film is also a triumph for McGregor in that the actor gives his first convincing Yank accent; perhaps it helped that he could play “Southern” rather than just “American.”) And oh yes, they kiss. And do other things. A lot.
At a time when audacity seems to be slowly draining out of mainstream filmmaking (with the exception of something like “Four Lions”), it’s refreshing to see a movie that’s this bold and unpredictable and naughty. The gasps and the laughs keep coming, and “I Love You, Phillip Morris” ranks as one of 2010’s tastiest surprises.