Wednesday, December 8, 2010

I Like More Than Love "Phillip Morris"

I debated with myself as to whether I ought to wait to rewatch "I Love You Phillip Morris" before writing this review, since I saw it so much earlier in the year. But then, I wouldn't be writing a review at all if the movie hadn't stuck with me for this long, and I do have some thoughts about it that have been rattling around in my brain since February. First and foremost among them is that this is a very strange movie.

Stephen Jay Russell (Jim Carrey) starts out as a police officer living a life of domestic bliss with his wife Debbie (Leslie Mann) and a cute kid. Then one day, there's a terrible accident and Steve has a life-changing epiphany. He's gay. He's not only gay, but flaming gay and soon finds his way to South Beach, living it up and working as a con man to support his new lifestyle. Then he ends up in prison, where he meets the love of his life. No, the title is not a euphemism for cigarette addiction. Steve falls passionately in love with his cellmate, one Phillip Morris (Ewan MacGregor), and when threatened with their imminent separation Steve decides to take matters into his own hands. And the story really starts getting crazy.

I've never seen a film so deliriously manic and earnestly sentimental at the same time. The relationship at the center of the film seems to verge on parody at times because the camp level is cranked up so high, especially with Ewan MacGregor using the same wholesome Southern drawl that he had in "Down With Love," and Jim Carrey piling on the sight gags. Yet somehow, the pitch black comedy and fluffy romance do work together. This is a movie that could have been so terrible so easily, but Carrey commits everything he's got to the role of a con-man in love with very poor impulse control, and boy does it pay off for him. I think this is his most memorable performance in years, and certain among his best comedic ones.

I was never a big fan of the early Jim Carrey, who made "Ace Ventura," built his fame on funny faces, and fueled the rise of modern idiot cinema. I preferred his more sincere everyman roles in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "The Truman Show." "I Love You Phillip Morris" is the best of both. We get plenty of slapstick and broad humor, but at the same time you do buy Carrey as being genuinely in love, and being driven by that love to go to all of these wild extremes. There were a few moments where I wish the directors, John Requa and Glenn Ficara, would have slowed down down a little more often to let the romantic side of the story balance out the comedy.

As it is, the film feels like a roller-coaster in just about every sense - narratively, tonally, visually. Plot twists fly fast and furious. Hysterical moments lead into sentimental ones and serious scenes will have laughs lobbed into their midst. While Steve and Phillip are cozying up in their cell together, the prison guards are violently clashing with the inmate next door. Steve's narration of his increasingly ridiculous crimes keeps emphasizing his devotion to Phillip, which gives his actions a solid emotional context. Though the film insists that it's based on a true story, some of the antics that Steve gets up to are really tough to swallow. But eventually the audience becomes like Steve's long-suffering wife, who simply takes it all in stride.

"I Love You Phillip Morris" was stuck in distribution limbo for ages, in part because of its frank treatment of gay relationships and a few simulated sex scenes that might give more the conservative members of the audience heart palpitations. These scenes aren't gratuitous, but there's no effort to hide what's going on or to sugarcoat the homosexuality, the way "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" did. While I hope we can assume that anyone going to see a gay prison romance movie in the first place would have some idea of what to expect, for those remaining Jim Carrey fans hoping for a return to the "Dumb and Dumber" era, it may be wise to skip this one.

For a certain crowd, however, "Phillip Morris" is a lot of fun. It's chaotic and weird and sometimes teeters on the edge of bad taste, but it's entertaining throughout. I came out of my screening with very mixed emotions, though, because for all the film's flights of fancy, reality catches up with Stephen Jay Russell in the end. I appreciate that the filmmakers didn't pull their punches, but ultimately it feels like they sold the romantic side of the story short. Though the laughs were great, I was invested in Steve and Phillip's relationship by the end, and I was looking for a resolution I didn't get. Those two really do make a cute couple.

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