Friday, July 8, 2011

A Film Worthy of Love? - "I Love You Phillip Morris" Review

With the recent repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”  it seems that our country is slowly becoming more and more accepting of gays in our everyday lives.  With the passing of this repeal there couldn’t be a better time than this past Christmas to release a film like I Love You Phillip Morris, a film that openly presents and flaunts its gay protagonists.

After sitting two years on the shelf, debuting at Sundance in 2009, and with numerous studios debating its release (something that looked like it would never happen), the film has finally been released worldwide. 
I Love You Phillip Morris tells the true (though heavily stylized) story of Steven Russell, a con artist and criminal, whose actions see him in and out of jail in George Bush’s Texas in the 1980s and 1990s.

The story of I Love You Phillip Morris is told through a series of flashbacks, with Steven (Jim Carrey) lying in a hospital bed, recounting his tumultuous life.  Steven is dying and the story he narrates tells of what led him to be in this awful condition.

Steven’s life starts off normal enough, he's a Georgian cop who attends church, is married to a beautiful wife (Leslie Mann), and loves his two children. 

Oh, and incidentally: he’s gay.

It seems that Steven is living a lie but when he is involved in a near-fatal car accident, Steven realizes that he needs to be honest with those around him.  This prompts him to leave his family behind and move to Florida to live with his new boyfriend, Jimmy.

However, life as a gay man in Florida is expensive; Steven finds that he needs fancy clothes, a nice car, and expensive watches.  To counter this, Steven turns to a life of crime, something that he discovers he is quite talented at.

The police quickly catch up to Steven and he finds himself in jail. Steven adapts to prison life and there he meets the blonde-haired blue-eyed Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), whose looks and demeanor make him an easy target.

The two men instantly fall for each other and begin a complicated prison relationship.  The remainder of the film follows Steven’s attempt to get Phillip and himself out of prison so that they can live their lives happily together.

The story is unbelievably silly and downright unrealistic except for the fact that it is all true.  Each moment is more unpredictable than the last, leaving the audience never quite sure where the film is heading.

However, this proves to be a bit of a problem for I Love You Phillip Morris.  While the film may be one of the most consistently funny films released over the past five years, it’s also missing any sort of progression through its crazed narrative.  The film never sets up a compelling reason for the audience to care about the motives and adventures of Steven.

While the sexual orientation of the main characters may be unconventional, their love story is the most conventional part of this film.  Phillip Morris is the attractive, meek, blonde-haired blue-eyed love interest that relies heavily on the hero to get them out of a bad situation.  If one replaced Phillip with a blonde-haired blue-eyed woman the film would be no different.

Instead of celebrating gay culture, the film relegates its most interesting concept, telling the story of two gay lovers in prison, to a conventional Hollywood trope.  Phillip is a hollow character that serves as a dutiful love interest for the hero and as such never gives a real reason for the audience to want to see him as more than that.

Steven, on the other hand, is an incredibly interesting character made even more intriguing by Jim Carrey.  It has been years since Carrey has given a performance this compelling, rich, and downright entertaining.  He hits every joke with such bravado; stretching his face, body, and astonishing sense of comedic timing.

I Love You Phillip Morris may not be able to sustain its dramatic moments but it has more than a firm grasp around how to generate laughs.  The film will leave audiences gasping for air and never quite sure from where the next well-designed laugh will surprise them next. 

Writers/directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra may not be the most visual of directors but they do an incredible job of pacing their humor.  With the help of Jim Carrey, I Love You Phillip Morris bounces between dark humor (in a particularly funny first kiss scene), visual gags, reveals, and Jim Carrey’s top-notch slapstick jokery.

Steven’s cons get more elaborate and fanatical as the film continues until they swallow the movie whole.  This leaves very little time to establish Phillip’s character and their relationship, which should be the heart of the story.  Ewan McGregor is convincing as Phillip, but is never allowed to develop the role onscreen.

In the end I Love You Phillip Morris feels like a hilarious overview of a brilliant conman’s unbelievable life rather than an unconventional love story about a man who thought he could have it all only to realize that it doesn’t come that easily.  Each story is particularly interesting but with a bit more skill I Love You Phillip Morris could have been both.

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