Newbie Wednesdays – I Love You Phillip Morris

I Love You Phillip Morris (2009, dir. Glenn Ficara and John Requa)
Starring Jim Carrey, Ewan MacGregor, Leslie Mann

Audiences love a great scoundrel. Con men able to take on the persona of figures of power, then use that power to one up “The Man” have been archetypal figures. Most recently Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can proved again that audiences love a good scam. At last year’s Sundance Film Festival, audiences were shown I Love You Phillip Morris, a feature film based on the true story of a man who never met a swindle he didn’t like. Since then the feature has struggled to find distribution and has been thrown around the schedule by studios frightened of its content, finally with a July 30th release date it looks like the general public will finally get to see what is a surprisingly clever and funny picture.

Steven Russell (Carrey) was an easy going clean cut suburbanite with a beautiful wife and daughter and steady job. However, he was hiding his sexuality from his wife, sneaking off for trysts with men when he had the chance. This all changed with a car accident where he had an epiphany. He was honest with his wife and left Texas for Florida where he met a handsome Latin man and showered him with gifts. Steven also had another secret: he was a damn good conman. He resorts to purposefully injuring himself in department stores and using fake credit cards to finance his life. The authorities catch up to Steven and he is tossed in prison where he meets the titular Phillip Morris (MacGregor). Steven falls madly in love and makes it his mission to get both he and Phillip out of prison. What follows are a series of scams that are so outlandish its hard to believe this is all based on a true story, and that the real Steven Russell was actually able to do these things.

It’s very interesting that the screenwriters of the snarky and vicious Bad Santa, Ficara and Requa both penned and directed this incredibly funny and, in certain moments, tear-inducingly poignant film. There is definitely the self-aware and sarcastic tone of Bad Santa present, but the characters here feel much more fleshed out and sympathetic. The film never shies away from the sexuality of its leads but it also doesn’t make them spokesmen for the LGBT community. These are just two people in love who are living their lives. That’s not to say the more prudish elements in our society will be lured into the theater. The scene where we learn Russell is gay involves him in the middle of coitus with one of his late night trysts.

The picture suffers in the structure department, though. It appears that Ficara and Requa wanted to be as true to the chronology of events as possible, and real life just doesn’t translate into a traditional cinematic story arc. The film comes off as episodic and a series of acts: act one is Steven’s coming to terms with his sexuality, act two is Steven meeting Phillip, and so on. I have to say the film is better than I expect it would have been if its original director, Gus Van Sant, has stayed on. As much as I love Van Sant, I can’t see him creating a film as entertaining as this. While it does it entertain, Carrey refrains from being schitck-y and is more in line with his performance in Man in the Moon. It’s inevitable that the film is going to lack the publicity push it deserves and be dumped at the end of the summer in theaters, so if you have the chance to see it definitely go.

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