I doubt very much that either Glenn Ficarra or John Requa hoped that pity would define any critical responses to I Love Phillip Morris, and if I’m being honest, then I’ll admit freely that I had no expectation to that effect, either. Yet even before the credits started to roll I felt sorry for the film; not because it’s incompetently made or lacking strong narrative, but because of the difficulties the film inherently faces in terms of finding an audience and achieving recognition. It’s a regrettable sign of the times; as much as society marches forward in the advancement of tolerance toward homosexuals, many simply aren’t ready or willing to accept a film focused on the relationship between two men– odd considering the critical success shared by 2008’s Milk and 2010’s The Kids Are All Right (and, the case of the latter, commercial success as well).
I haven’t forgotten that I’m ostensibly reviewing this picture rather than venting my puzzlement over this perceived discrepancy, so pardon me my indulgences. Regardless of why Ficarra’s and Requa’s picture didn’t receive the same attention as Cholodenko’s or Van Sant’s, it’s certainly worth writing about on the strength of its own merits, which are numerous. Marking the directorial debut of the Ficarra/Requa tag-team, I Love You Phillip Morris consists of one part con man film and one part love story, focusing on the life of the very-real Steven Jay Russell and his journey from life in the closet to a latter-day acceptance of his homosexuality. Married with children and serving on the force in Virginia Beach, Steven’s (Jim Carrey) life is nothing short of a lie until a major car accident causes him to check his priorities and leads to him coming out and moving to Florida to begin anew as a gay man. To fund his and his boyfriend’s (Rodrigo Santoro) new lifestyle, he resorts to scams and confidence games until he lands himself in jail, where he meets Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor) and immediately falls in love.
There’s a point in their prison romance where things shift gears and the mode of the film changes. I Love You Phillip Morris kicks off as a movie about a man figuring out who he is and embracing his true personality, and eventually switches over to a story about that same man moving mountains for the person he loves the most. Admittedly, for Steven that means perpetrating cons left and right, both to get Phillip out of prison early so they can live together (Steven gets an early release while Phillip remains imprisoned) and so that they can share in the same luxurious lifestyle to which Steven grew previously accustomed, but every fraud he employs is only done in service of giving Phillip a life absent of wants. Really, this is just a movie about the lengths Steve is willing to go for the man he loves more than anyone else in the world.
I think for a lot of people, even those who aren’t strictly or strongly homophobic, the male/male relationship at I Love You Phillip Morris‘ center represents an obstacle to appreciating what the film offers. Put bluntly, that’s a shame; I Love You Phillip Morris is genuinely sweet and even romantic in its own fashion as Steven bends over backwards for Phillip’s happiness. Undoubtedly more closed-minded audiences might treat the film as anything but a love story, and maybe a simple gender swap would have reversed opinions of this nature. But changing Phillip’s and Steven’s relationship into one more “traditional” according to draconian social norms would seriously undermine the intent of the entire film and defused the tension inherent to how hard they work to be together. In fact, it would be The Next Three Days, but with wit and tenderness.
Both of these qualities largely house themselves in Jim Carrey’s performance as Steven. Carrey’s completely wonderful here, showing great restraint over his manic energy and a willingness to employ it in extremely small, but effective, doses when need be. He never verges on cartoon character territory, a minor miracle given how over-the-top Steven is as a character; certainly he’s wacky, flamboyant, and larger than life, but he’s also terrifically real and sympathetic. I don’t know how much Carrey’s performance will be remembered in larger analysis of his life and career, but it’s a great turn that provides a substantial bit of verve to the proceedings.
McGregor is somewhat less successful*, but only because as a reactive character he has so much less to do than Steven, whose actions inform the direction of the plot in much larger ways. To his credit, McGregor makes it easy to see why Steven falls for Phillip so hard– he’s winsome and demure, endlessly optimistic, and a total sweetheart. But he’s also a supporting player in a movie that takes its title partially from his name, and his lack of presence in I Love You Phillip Morris‘ total running time weighs on the picture somewhat. Bereft of McGregor’s acting, the film’s basic conceit might have been conveyed too little to be palatable– a flaw, but a minor flaw in light of the caliber of performance on display.
Ignoring the sense of wonderment I’ve expressed over how I Love You Phillip Morris was allowed to fade from popular consciousness, the film nevertheless deserves to be seen by virtue of its excellence rather than sociological reasons; it’s funny, warm, just a little bit bonkers, and totally heartfelt all at once. Maybe more than being a great love story, I Love You Phillip Morris yields a narrative on homosexual experiences and lives spent locked up in the closet, examining how the act of hiding and suppressing one’s sexuality can impact their lives in the long run. That element feels slight– it’s never the focus of the film more than Steven’s attraction to Phillip– but adds layering to an already enjoyable, wonderful, and most of all unexpected little romantic comedy.