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Entries in I Love You Phillip Morris [2010] (1)

Thursday
Dec162010

I Love You Phillip Morris (2010)

Ace Ventura: Bathhouse Detective

I Love you Phillip Morris is the most offensive movie I’ve seen this year.  The only thing I knew going in was that Jim Carrey plays a con man who meets Ewan McGregor in prison, and the two fall in love.  Its limited-release status and industry buzz led me to believe that I’d get to see Carrey continue his push towards more adult roles—leaving behind the rubber-faced, hyperactive shtick that made him a star in the 90s.  It was not to be.  If this movie breaks into wide release, the actor’s nasty, over-the-top flamboyance could single-handedly set the Gay Rights movement back thirty years.

I have the same problem with this film as I did with Brokeback Mountain; it has nothing to do with the main characters’ homosexuality and everything to do with the unrelenting selfishness that leads them to destroy their families—and, ultimately, themselves.  In this film, Carrey plays Steven Russell, who we first see lying on a gurney, narrating his life story.  He was an adopted child who grew up to marry a plucky Christian homemaker named Debbie (Leslie Mann).  They had a daughter, a house full of nice things, and a quiet suburban existence.

The catch, as you may have guessed, is that Steven is gay.  After a particularly rough and sweaty sodomy session, he gets in his car and drives home, only to be slammed into by either a drunk or reckless driver.  As his broken body is lifted into the ambulance, Steve vows to live his life the way he wants to live it, out and proud.  Cut to the swingin’ beaches of Miami.  Steven has left his family and buttoned-down police job for a cut Brazilian lad named Jimmy (Rodrigo Santoro), fabulous clothes and cocktail parties.

This extravagant lifestyle requires money, of which Steven doesn’t make nearly enough as a grocery distributor (or something to that effect); so he decides to put his duplicity to great use as a con artist.  He begins with the old slip-and-fall-in-the-Baking-Goods-aisle trick and works his way up to impersonating an attorney (in the pre-instant-reference-check 80s).  He is eventually found out and lands in jail; Jimmy breaks up with him, so Steven is free to fall in love again—which he does, with Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor).

The rest of I Love You Phillip Morris plays out as a series of variations on this scenario: Steven gets out of prison; makes money through hustling to support Phillip; Steven gets arrested again; Steven concocts a larger con and tries to keep Phillip in the dark.  Three things keep this “based on a true story” movie from being coherent, entertaining and believable:

  1.  I liked this movie better when it was called Catch Me if You Can.  Steven Spielberg covered this territory almost a decade ago, in a movie that really sold the flash and suspense of a jet-setting rip-off artist.  Phillip Morris feels like co-writers/directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra (working from Steve McVicker’s book) simply cut the run-time in half and applied a fresh coat of Queer Eye to the screenplay.  What they chopped, unfortunately, were all the scenes showing the con-man’s pathos—as well as the ones that helped the audience feel anything towards him but disdain; there’s no explanation whatsoever as to why Steven felt the need hide his sexuality; we might assume it was because he grew up in the South, or because he felt awkward in his adopted family, or because he was born under a bad sign—it doesn’t matter.  Without the benefit of context, all we get is a wholly unlikable, self-absorbed monster that we’re told to love because of his big, goofy smile and the whimsical music that follows him everywhere.
  2. Down your throats.  I’m not against the premise of I Love You Phillip Morris—just the execution; a big part of the problem is that Jim Carrey has left behind much of the seriousness he’d begun to cultivate in Man on the Moon and The Number 23, reverting back to wacky spills and funny voices.  Not that it matters that he’s paddling backwards; I get the feeling that the only reason this didn’t get a wider push is because no matter how broad and familiar Carrey’s performance, ticket-paying mass audiences won’t be able look past him giving and receive blowjobs and relishing his partner repeatedly yelling, “Come in my ass!”
  3. Soooo much drama.  This movie wants to have it both ways.  On the one hand, it’s a cartoonish love story involving cardboard characters (from what I can tell, the main reason Steven and Phillip fall in love is because they’re the only two white gay guys in prison); on the other, it’s a serious drama about AIDS.  Out of nowhere, we see a flashback where Jimmy tearfully tells Steven to learn to love again; later, Steven narrates his own death from the virus—except that he doesn’t die.  It’s a huge con designed to re-unite with Phillip.  At this point, the movie made me flat out angry, because the tearful-goodbye phone call between Steven and Phillip was the one moment—the only three minutes out of ninety—that felt genuine.  But, like everything else here, it was just the setup for a really cheap gag.

I’ve written before about my inherent distrust of movies that claim to be based on true events and real people.  In the case of I Love You Phillip Morris, I sincerely hope that the facts were simply embellished and  turned into a really awful screenplay.  I’d like to think that, in real life, Phillip Morris would have called Steven Russell on his shit early on and not just been the naïve twink who acts (and runs) like an ignorant quarterback’s impression of queers.  Can two people be in a serious relationship for this long and really have no idea of who they’re committed to?  I suppose so, but in order to make that compelling, you need to really peel back the onion, and not just shrug it off with a “let’s move on to the next kooky prison break” attitude.

It’s entertainment like this that perpetuates the stereotypes of gays in our society, and which will likely be looked back upon in fifty years in much the same way as Amos & Andy is today.  Sure, it’s a love story, but it’s a love story between a person who is totally unlovable and another who’s a cypher, an idea of a person whose importance as a vehicle of redemption overshadows any human qualities whatsoever.

The people behind I Love You Phillip Morris may not be homophobic, but their film most definitely is.