John Requa and Glenn Ficarra’s I Love You, Phillip Morris arrived last year, but if you weren’t paying very close attention to the movie listings at your local arthouse theater, you might have missed it. The film stars Jim Carrey as an exceptionally gay con-man who will go to any lengths to keep himself happy, and– according to rumor– the film’s sometimes-graphic gay sex scenes scared Hollywood away from opening the film like any other Jim Carrey-led comedy. So, is it really that graphic? Or were all those rumors much ado about nothing? And does any of it really matter when the film’s this funny? Read on for our full I Love You, Phillip Morris review.
The rumor most of us heard before John Requa and Glenn Ficarra’s I Love You, Phillip Morris arrived was that Hollywood had been scared off of putting the film into wide release because of the film’s overtly homosexual content. This, of course, might lead you to believe that Phillip Morris is packed with racy, gay sex scenes, full-frontal male nudity, and other controversial material that you don’t typically see in the standard studio fare. This is, after all, the same studio system that’s turned “torture porn” into a viable genre and gang-rapes into entertainment (see also: I Spit on Your Grave, the Hills Have Eyes franchise, Last House on The Left, Grown-Ups), so Phillip Morris had to be really, really raunchy for Hollywood to be so nervous about it, right?
Turns out, Phillips Morris has a few– like, two– gay sex scenes and some brief nudity, but it’s a long, long way from being controversial. I don’t know for sure if the gay sex in Phillip Morris is really to blame for the film’s bizarre release strategy, of course, but now that I’ve seen it for myself, I find that hard to believe. If you’re freaked out by the idea of two dudes getting it on, you might be a little non-plussed by about ten minutes’ worth of footage here, but for the rest of its 100-minute runtime, Phillip Morris is a hilarious, sometimes touching, way-above-average-for-latter-day-Jim-Carrey-movies entry in Carrey’s filmography. I recommend it wholeheartedly to everyone, except the most homophobic.
The film’s based on a true story, and if you didn’t dig up the Wikipedia page on the film’s protagonist, you might be inclined to believe that Hollywood’s stretched the truth to make their script more exciting. Truth is, the life of Steven Jay Russell (Carrey) is just as bizarre, unbelievable, and outrageous as it’s portrayed here: dude really did get in a car wreck and decide that he was gay (despite being married with children); dude really did pull off a series of elaborate scams on a handful of employers, enough to land him in prison; dude really did meet another dude named Phillip Morris while incarcerated, fall in love with him, and work harder than he’d ever worked in his life to maintain contact with him; dude really did break out of prison using a never ending supply of ingenious, hard-to-believe escape plots. All of this is played for the comedy inherent in each situation, but it all really went down. Go ahead, check out Russell’s Wikipedia page: you’ll be shocked by the shit this guy got away with (and, in some cases, didn’t get away with).
As we mentioned above, Steven Jay Russell (Carrey) is a happily married family man with a solid job, a beautiful (and endlessly forgiving) wife, and a handful of kids. One night, Russell gets into a terrible car wreck, and when he regains consciousness, he realizes that he’s been gay all his life. Obviously, this is a lifestyle choice that doesn’t jibe with his wife, kids, and Sunday-morning performances in the church choir, and so after healing up Russell heads for Miami to re-boot his life as a newly gay man. He meets another guy, falls in love, and when that guy gets AIDS, Russell is shattered. Not as shattered as he is when the Feds catch on to the elaborate, white-collar scam he’s been running at work (which has made him a millionaire), but still– shattered. Once he ends up in prison, Russell meets the titular Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), and almost immediately the two fall in love.
They trade notes across the prison hallways, live for the few quiet moments they get with one another, and talk about how great life will be once they’re both released. It’s a cute little courtship, and when Russell manages to finagle a cell-transfer that puts him into the very same cell as Phillip, it almost seems like the two could go on happily without ever being released. But Russell’s incorrigible, and it’s only a matter of time before he gets into further trouble, gets separated from Morris, and has to figure out a way to get back into his beloved’s waiting arms (assuming that Morris wants him back, of course).
That’s the basic premise of the film, but there are a lot of twists and turns throughout the telling, and especially in the film’s final half-hour (which I haven’t gone into in order to keep this review spoiler-free). Of the many unforeseeable twists I Love You, Phillip Morris takes before its climax, the one that wraps the film– you’ll know it when you see it– had me laughing hysterically, choking with disbelief, convinced that I needed to show the film to as many people I could in the near future. Really, it’s that good. One word of advice, though: don’t go digging into Russell’s real-life history until you’ve seen the film. Doing so will only spoil a few of the film’s better surprises, and the thrill of reading about Russell’s exploits on Wikipedia doesn’t hold a candle to seeing them unfold in Ficarra and Requa’s film.
Speaking of which, my hat’s off to Ficarra and Requa. I knew literally nothing about these guys before seeing Phillip Morris, but they’ve proven themselves worth paying attention to in the future. This is the kinda material that seems like it’d be very easy to pull off– it’s got action, suspense, comedy, romance, everything– but to pull it off this well, you’ve gotta have a deft touch. It would’ve been really easy to go too far in one direction, and if we’re going to be frank, that was my biggest concern about the film prior to seeing it: would Jim Carrey mug his way through this one, basically pulling a “gay Ace Ventura” act? Or would he be the sedate, recognizably human Jim Carrey that we’ve come to know over the past decade? Sure, the directors might try and keep things centered, but it’d all be for naught if Carrey started talking out of his ass (which, as anyone who’s ever been to prison will surely tell you, is never a good idea). I’m happy to report that Ficarra and Requa get one of Carrey’s better performances out of the actor. This really is the best film that Carrey’s made in years; it’s a shame more people didn’t get a chance to see it.
The Blu-ray quality is– as expected– excellent: the film’s colorful, and benefits from the format tremendously. This isn’t Disney-level video quality, but it’s still better than DVD, and if you’ve got a solid entertainment center, you’re going to be pleased with yourself for spending the extra $5 to have it on Blu. Not so impressive: the disc’s extras. You get a filmmaker commentary (which I confess that I haven’t listened to yet, but plan on listening to sooner rather than later), a making-of featurette, some (rightfully) deleted scenes, and a trailer. I would’ve like to have seen an in-depth piece about the real-life Steve Russell, which seems like it would have been an obvious inclusion here. In fact, I’m relatively sure that Russell’s been the focus of at least one “Famous Prison Escapees”-style shows on the History Channel (or maybe Discovery): couldn’t they have tossed that on here? It would’ve been nice, and the set feels lighter without it.
But that’s a small complaint. For the most part, I Love You Phillip Morris is a complete success. If you’re not opposed to the sight of Jim Carrey thrusting away behind a biker-looking dude or a few tender moments between Carrey and McGregor (and, let’s face it: it’s 2011– you oughtta be over that shit by now), my guess is that you’re really going to enjoy Requa and Ficarra’s film. I wholeheartedly recommend this one, particularly to those of you that miss the days when a Jim Carrey movie was something to look forward to.
My grade? A-