“This actually happened,” says the opening credits of I Love You
Phillip Morris. “It really did.” I call bullshit. Yes, I know that
this film was based on the true story of Steven Jay Russell, but I find
it very hard to believe that this tale wasn’t adapted with considerable
liberties taken. There’s no way that the police and prison guards in
Texas — a state famous for being tough on criminals — could possibly
be this incompetent.
See, Steven Jay Russell (Jim Carrey) is a con artist who somehow
manages to repeatedly escape from prison by means that are increasingly
intricate and ever more implausible. Hell, Russell’s last breakout
during the film’s climax is so complex, so far-fetched and pocked with
so many security holes that even Russell himself had to pretty much say
(via narration) “Damn, these guys are stupid.” You’d think after the
second or third breakout, they’d send him to a different prison,
heighten security, put a tracking anklet on him, stick him in solitary
or at the very least, sit all the security guards down and show them a
picture of Russell, saying “This guy has escaped prison multiple times,
so look out for him. And if he shows up in a fancy suit, claiming
to be a lawyer, LOCK HIM UP.”
Ah, but Russell isn’t just a con artist who gets into a cycle of
getting caught and breaking free. No, he’s also a flaming homosexual who
finds his one true love in prison (the film’s namesake, played by Ewan
McGregor). They fall in love at first sight in this movie, then live
together until the inevitable breakup. Russell works to win Morris back,
they reconcile… and Russell spends the rest of his life in prison.
Okay, this is a very black comedy, but it’s a comedy nonetheless. The
setting alone is hilarious, putting the “gay, gay, gay, gay, gay”
Russell in the homophobic and uber-Christian south (the state of Texas,
no less!). Russell’s ex-wife, played by Leslie Mann, also provides a
bit of religious parody as a well-meaning but totally naive Christian
woman. Of course, Jim Carrey also provides his trademark brand of
physical humor, with pratfalls, voices and rubbery expressions galore.
Several of his outfits are also hilarious, and those visual gags could
only have been carried out by someone as totally immune to shame as
Carrey. Last but not least, there are the gay jokes, though their
presentation is quite unusual. When most lesser comedies deal with this
subject matter, the gay stereotypes are expected to be funny solely
because they’re stereotypes, ignorant that humor doesn’t work that way.
Here, the humor works, partly because the gay stereotypes aren’t funny
for their own sake, but because they’re exaggerated to such an
impossibly hilarious extent. Also, the aforementioned contrast makes the
whole thing even funnier. And did I mention this was Jim Carrey acting
so absurdly flamboyant?
Aside from all that, this film is a surprisingly sweet love story.
Carrey and McGregor have some very good chemistry and the romance is
played completely straight direct. It’s almost like a
tongue-in-cheek satire of film love stories, depicting a homosexual
romance exactly as we’d expect a heterosexual one to be shown. Yes,
there is some gay sex in this movie, but it’s never more explicit than
the sex scenes of any other R-rated movie. Far more importantly, the
love subplot is used as a means of exploring the character of Steven Jay
Russell. After all, the guy can’t help but be a pathological liar and
he’s courting a man who’s repeatedly shown to be naive and sensitive.
How, the movie asks, can a relationship work when one half of it is
compulsively dishonest? How can anyone love this man when no one knows
who he really is?
This film is a romance with a lot of heart that just happens to be
about two gay dudes. It’s a very bright movie in its tone and score,
though most of it is set inside a prison. There’s a ton of gay humor
played to the hilt and it’s set in the gay-unfriendly Texas. That’s I
Love You Phillip Morris in a nutshell, folks.
The visuals are serviceable, the score is nicely upbeat and our two
lead actors do a great job of playing their relationship with a balance
of eager comedy and melodrama. Unfortunately, the script is loaded with
plot holes and it’s predictable in several places. Then again, there was
the third act, which took an exceptionally dark turn before throwing us
a huge curveball.
I Love You Phillip Morris is certainly not the year’s best
movie. I wouldn’t even put it in the top ten. Still, it’s a competently
made and nicely quirky little movie. The rom-com is such a tired genre
that any unique entry of that label should be worthy of consideration at
the very least. If you’ve got the stomach to watch two men kissing and
you don’t mind some good-natured ribbing at the religious right’s
expense, I suggest giving it a look.