Sundance Part Five: I Love You Phillip Morris
Posted on Monday January 19, 2009, 17:05 by Damon Wise
Going into I Love You Phillip Morris (pictured) I wasn't sure what to expect. I'd seen the trailer, which made it look kind of garish, with Jim Carrey as a cop who leaves his strait-laced religious wife to become a flamboyant Florida homosexual and resorts to fraud to finance his lifestyle. I was worried that I'd seen the whole movie in microcosm, but I was surprised to find that the trailer pillages quite a lot of scenes from the opening half-hour, making them appear to be excerpts from a wacky, outrageous comedy, which, from the makers of Bad Santa, it sometimes is. But Phillip Morris is a very unusual beast, and it's hard to say why without spoiling things. It's a film that pulls you in but never quite takes you over the top, as you feel it should. It might even underwhelm you, but the final reveal (if you haven't read the book) explains the directors' coyness. This is a staggering true story that leaves you quite simply flabbergasted. And you can't even say you weren't warned; the most important line in the film is the opening credit. “This really happened,” it says in earnest. “It really did."
At the centre, as you'd imagine, is a powerhouse performance by Carrey as Steven Russell. Nearly killed in a car crash, he vows to life his life his own way and embrace his so-far hidden gayness. “I'm a fag,” he mutters on the stretcher, “Big fag: that's what they'll call me.” Leaving his wife and kids, he moves to Florida with his new boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro), but his crime spree gets out of hand, the police are involved and his lover leaves him. Russell goes to the penitentiary, where he meets the fey, blond Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), and the two fall in love. Or rather, Russell becomes besotted. Everything Morris wants, Morris gets, and when Russell pays for an annoying fellow inmate to be beaten up, Morris sobs, “That's the most romantic thing anyone's even done for me.” The gay scenes are surprisingly strong and upfront, making this a difficult prospect for Carrey's mainstream following, but they're necessary because this is a film about love and infatuation. Russell's love for Morris sends him back to his old ways, and from here the film becomes a whirlwind farce in which the clearly intelligent Russell is forever a step ahead of, or a step behind, the law. Deceit is in his DNA, and after a while it's kind of scary.
McGregor plays the love interest with charm and appeal, but this is Carrey's show, and I can't help wondering how the gay press will react to his performance. There's a grotesque aspect of Russell, a ruthless streak that, despite the gifts, the chocolates and champagne he showers on the diabetic Morris, suggests a man with a serious screw loose, not just an incurable romantic. I won't tell you what happens in the end, but it really bowls a strike, turning a weird romcom into something more twisted and perhaps even important, in the most serious sense of the word. As Hollywood prepares for this year's Oscars, I wouldn't be surprised if next year there's a slot for Carrey and this astonishing film. Assuming, that is, the Academy can accept their favourite rubber-faced funnyman as not just gay but, as Russell puts it, “gay, gay, gay, gay, gay”.