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'I Love You Phillip Morris' review: The heart is a prison

December 10, 2010 - 09:45 AM
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i love you phillip morris
Isn't prison love sweet?

Usually, when a film premieres at the Sundance Film Festival in January, you can expect it to arrive in cinemas — if it's lucky enough to get a theatrical release — by year's end. Winter's Bone, for instance, premiered at Sundance this year and screened at the E Street Cinema in June. But I Love You Phillip Morris took much longer, as it premiered at the festival in 2009 and only now is arriving in theaters. While the delay appears to be the result of distributor incompetence and legal wrangling, one of the film's stars, Ewan McGregor, alleged that Disney bosses deterred its release this time last year because they didn't want audiences thinking the star of A Christmas Carol — Jim Carrey, who plays McGregor's lover in Phillip Morris — was gay.

Naturally, then, the longstanding storyline has been, "Is the film too gay for American moviegoers?" I'm here to tell you that it's not "too gay," whatever the hell that means. If anything, it's on the prim side. The raciest moment comes during a brief cutaway showing Carrey screwing a man doggystyle, but it's shot from the waist up. As for Carrey, who plays an expert con man, and McGregor, the titular character, their affection is conveyed merely through heavy petting and occasional kissing. Sex is not the point here; love is.

And now I've written more on these matters than Phillip Morris warrants. Let's move on to a more relevant issue: Is this oft-delayed, not-too-gay film any good?

Phillip Morris is based on the real life of Steven Jay Russell, a Texan who's escaped from prison more times than I care to count. At the beginning of the film, Russell is married and lives in Virginia Beach, where he works as a cop. Given up for adoption as a child, he abuses his police powers to located his birth mother, who promptly rejects him. After he's involved in a vicious car accident, he decides to come out to his wife and live as an openly gay man. And this is where the first of many gay clichés crop up in Phillip Morris, as Russell discovers that "being gay is really expensive!" You can imagine how Carrey delivers that line.

Carrey has never been a subtle actor, and Phillip Morris is no exception. He plays Russell with the same outlandish fervor he brought to Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Is he being faithful to his character? Perhaps. Russell told the Guardian that Carrey and McGregor "have it down": "They way we speak, the mannerisms, the clothes — everything. It's surreal." But sometimes we don't know ourselves as well as we think — or see ourselves, anyway, as others see us — and Carrey's portrayal of Russell strikes me as slapstick caricature. When Carrey swings a golf club, his body wriggles like a string of spaghetti, and when he throws himself down an escalator — to threaten a lawsuit — he poses in midair, his arms flailing and a stupid grin on his face. This is the Jim Carrey some people know and love, but the one I can't stand.

McGregor nearly saves the film as Russell's sensitive, impressionable lover, whom he meets in prison after being convicted of fraud. I can't see how anyone would love Carrey's Russell — he's an ingenious escape artist, yes, but insufferable company — and yet, the way Morris lights up in his presence, the way he bats his eyelids and grins uncontrollably, I almost believe a deep love exists between them. But then Carrey makes another ridiculous face, and I'm back to waiting for the next plot twist.

Of which there are many. It's hard to believe, watching Phillip Morris, that it's a true story (and from everything I've read, the film is accurate). Russell slips out of prison with increasing creativity, from impersonating an undercover cop in women's clothes to dying his prison whites green with magic marker ink, fooling the guards into believing he's a doctor. Another time, he impersonates a judge and reduces his bail from $900,000 to $45,000, which he promptly pays and gets released. He's no less clever on the outside, at one point convincing a medical insurance company to hire him as its chief financial officer, a position that allows him to embezzle hundreds of thousands of dollars. And he did all of this, it is claimed, for his love of Phillip Morris.

This film is a first effort by co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who co-wrote the excellent Bad Santa. For that reason alone, I expected to laugh for the duration of Phillip Morris. Unfortunately, the jokes here aren't funny; they're juvenile punchlines. I love dick jokes as much as the next person, but a cloud in the shape of a dick? And a baggette and two dinner rolls arranged to look like a cock and balls? Such easy stabs at humor are par for the course for a Jim Carrey movie, but I expected better from Ficarra and Requa. Perhaps Phillip Morris was delayed for another reason entirely.

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