Sundance 2009: Jim Carrey And Ewan McGregor Get Close In 'Philip Morris'
Glenn Ficarra and John Requa are probably best known as the writers of "Bad Santa," Terry Zwigoff's scabrous Christmas comedy with Billy Bob Thornton. That process was legendarily contentious during the post-production process, and Zwigoff's cut of the film was dicked around with by Dimension Films to a degree that would have killed most writers from frustration. Little wonder that they would eventually make the jump to directing their own material so that, maybe, they can fight for their work directly instead of having to watch someone else mangle it, even if the intentions were good.
Their script for this film, adapted from a non-fiction book by Steve McVicker, is a delight, clever and funny and emotionally open, and it gives both Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor rol es that allow them to do some of the best work they've done in a quite a while. For Carrey, it's the best thing he's done since "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind," and McGregor works so infrequently that it's nice to see him show up in something where he's given such an appealing role to play. If "I Love You, Phillip Morris" is a romantic comedy, then Ewan McGregor's the one playing the objet d'amor, and it's a reminder of just how charismatic and charming he can be.
The film's a hard one to describe. The plot details people told me before I saw it are actually a very small part of the film overall, mainly from the second half, and just listing a few beats doesn't really explain the film as a whole. It's the story of Steven Russell, played by Carrey, a guy with a knack for making people trust him. We see Steven's childhood, where he learned he was adopted, setting some very strong impulses into play for Steven. He dedicates himself to living a certain idea of a "good" life, becoming active in his church and marrying a beautiful woman (Leslie Mann) and working hard as a police officer to provide for his family. But Steven has secrets, and when a car accident nearly kills him, he completely reprioritizes, coming out of the closet, leaving his family, and moving to Miami to live with his new lover, played by Rodrigo Santoro. He swears he's done living with secrets, but just because he's open about his sexuality doesn't mean he's telling the truth about who he is. He's a con man, a manipulator, and he keeps getting himself into trouble until he eventually is thrown into jail. Which is where he finally meets Phillip Morris (McGregor), who Steven immediately identifies as the love of his life.
The film never follows what I would call a traditional dramatic arc. It's got crazy twists and turns in it, but the film's a really approachable dark comedy, considering how much gay sex and bad behavior is on display. Ficarra and Requa never shy away from anything about Steven, and what really makes the film work is that they never judge or mock him, either. This is a character study, not a condemnation, and although Steven's behavior is sociopathic at times and incredibly damaging to the people around him, he's not presented as either a bad guy or a hero. He's just a guy in love, a guy who is unhappy with his childho od, a guy with unresolved issues. The film plays some games with your sympathies, and there's one narrative trick in particular that I expect will infuriate some people, especially if they have a real emotional reaction to it. That's what I loved, though... as well-directed as the film is (and they do make a strong debut, with a simple, clean visual approach and a great touch with actors in general), it's a writer's movie. There are a thousand ways this story could have been intolerable, and yet these guys found the one way it really works, just the right tone and sensibility. Their own fascination with the story kept them from turning it into some sort of morality play or playing the characters as broad grotesques.
Underneath all of Steven's insane behavior, there is a very simple desire for connection, for belonging. His adoption obviously weighs heavily on him ("I WAS A MIDDLE CHILD!" he wails angrily when he finally meets his birth mother), and he suffers a fairly destructive loss as an adult as well. By the time he meets Phillip, he is desperate. He needs to give this nearly overwhelming love he has to someone, and Phillip seems made to order. It's quietly hilarious the way McGregor has the "girl" role here, slightly underwritten, always shot as eye candy, there more as a reflection of Steven's desire than as a fully realized character. It's especially funny if you happen to see a more standard-issue romantic comedy like "500 Days Of Summer" right before it. Zooey Deschanel isn't a person in that film... she's an idea being chased, and the same is true of McGregor here. And that's not necessarily a bad thing... it's just the way these films tend to work, and it's uncommon for an actor like McGregor to be the one playing the part. He does it well, and they've worked hard to make him as good-looking as he can be, all sunshine and perfect hair, his smile always on full wattage. He plays Phillip fragile, a guy who needs someone like Steven, someone eager to please. They fit. Their love makes sense, no matter how outrageous some elements of it are.
Carrey is always at his best when a director figures out how to harness that manic sad clown quality and make it simultaneously scary and angry and lonely and funny, and this is one of those roles. I think he's always presented himself offscreen as someone who almost depends on his job as a way to escape the reality of who he is, and he brings that personal understanding to how he plays Steven.
I'm not up here predicting what will or won't sell, but I can tell you that I personally enjoyed this one a lot, and I think there's an audience for it. It's an engaging ride, and there's a real tenderness underneath the sort of crazy con-man raunch of much of it. It's not my favorite film that I've seen here so far, but it's a film that I think will sit well with me from now until I get to see it again, whenever that is. I hope it's sooner, rather than later.