Don’t mistake the gay characters and situations of “I Love You, Phillip Morris” for being original story components. Sure, not many movies of this caliber are so carefree and open about homosexuality, but underneath, the fact that the main character Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) is gay has no bearing on the story John Requa and Glenn Ficarra are telling. Although it certainly dresses it up and gives it its own flavor, Russell’s story is about embracing who you are and finding something — in this case a love — worth living for.
That said, Requa and Ficarra embrace the gay world of “Phillip Morris” unabashedly. The film enjoys regular bouts of vulgarity, especially sexually explicit language and a fair share of both depicted and implied gay sex. Those viewers that are still getting over “Brokeback Mountain” might want to look for other forms of entertainment. Those who can’t look past the gay humor will almost certainly see “Phillip Morris” as nothing but bizarre and, well, queer.
Steven Russell is a church-going Southern man with a beautiful wife (Leslie Mann) and family, yet he’s been gay as long as he can remember. After a devastating traffic incident, he has an epiphany that he can no longer live in this picturesque lifestyle and must embrace who he is. He moves to Miami where being a tasteful gay man comes with a price tag, which leads him to commit insurance scams among other cons to pay for his new lifestyle. When the law finally catches up with him, he lands in prison where he meets Phillip Morris (McGregor), a fellow gay inmate who’s more tender and much less Type A. Steven then realizes he can pull similar cons in prison to make his and Phillip’s relationship work. Eventually he secures their release from prison but Steven’s lies continue.
Carrey and especially McGregor give noteworthy performances. Known for his acting eccentricities, Carrey channels them appropriately into playing a gay man, but more so a man who won’t hesitate to cheat the system to have the life he wants. He’s desperate in a mentally disturbing way, willing to go as far as killing himself (numerous attempts no less) in order to lead that life and not get caught. Despite appearing in the film’s title, McGregor is far less critical to the story except in serving as Steven’s one true desire, but he infuses the film with a sweetness that allows it to succeed as a romance.
The film charts Steven’s lack of progress when it comes to learning his lesson, namely that there are consequences. He simply can’t understand why Phillip can’t see that he’s bending all these rules for the sake of their love. Carrey balances the innocent quirkiness with a sad desperation; Russell ranks as one of his best character portraits, without question.
Requa and Ficarra milk the gay humor and con man high jinks to give the film its off-beat tone, but the story has a nice simplicity to it. That simplicity could easily be overlooked given how loud and foul the film behaves at times, so perhaps the directors would do better to dial back a bit instead of incidentally masking the depth and message of their film. Regardless, the two handle homosexuality appropriately by avoiding flagrant stereotyping and creating complete characters.
I Love You, Phillip Morris
Directed by Glen Ficarra and John Requa
Written by Glen Ficarra and John Requa, Steven McVicker (book)
Starring: Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor, Leslie Mann