Movie Review: I Love You Phillip Morris (2009)
Love is blind and fucking stupid. It can make a person do extreme things — endanger their well-being or make extraordinarily bad decisions — to find it and keep it. I Love You Phillip Morris, a film purported to be based on real life events, chronicles the adult life of Steven Russell, a con man who risked everything time and again to win the love and adoration of one Phillip Morris. That’s right; it’s a good ‘ole gayfest, which on its own accord draws explorative interest from movie goers as Brokeback Mountain did. Yet without the ingenious manner and tenacity in which Steven goes about staying connected with Phillip, the film, which oft times can’t tell if it wants to be a taken as a true drama, a rompy romance or a dark comedy, would quickly lose its way.
And a majority of the film’s success is in thanks to the clever casting of Jim Carrey as the man with the clever plans. The ever malleable funny man washes the credit card, insurance and bank fraud committing thief with a very serviceable innocence and likability which allows us to, in some unhealthy fashion, root for his triumph — even if it is totally undeserved.
His persona starts with his trying to reach out to his birth mother who outright rejects him — sending him into a tailspin that, after a horrific car accident, causes him to wholly reevaluate his life. He in turn rejects his wife (Leslie Mann) and daughter and openly embrace his homosexuality. Hello South Beach and cabana boys. Goodbye church choir and conformity. Hello to breaking the law — being a flamboyant fag is quite expensive. Goodbye to freedom — it doesn’t take long for his antics to land him in prison.
It’s in prison where I Love You Phillip Morris works to become a full fledged love story. Steven meets Phillip (a very blonde Ewan McGregor) and both fall madly in love. They pass grade school love notes to one another. Eventually they bunk together. Steven even has a guy beaten to within inches of his life for Phillip. Prison, however, isn’t exactly the place for sustainable, unquenchable love. Steven gets released and sets about scamming the system to get his “baby” back. And so starts more elaborate and brazen schemes — with one so in-depth that you can’t help but applaud the evil genius behind it.
Steven, like Frank Abagnale Jr. (made famous by the film Catch Me If You Can) was a master swindler. He played doctors, lawyers, a CFO, and countless other professions that gained him money (usually someone else’s) and authority. And as I previously mentioned, Jim Carrey is what makes it all work. Not only is his brand of physical comedy an advantage (nothing over-the-top) but his boyish looks, giving off an incorruptible vibe, are a perfect fit for a character who relies on such things for his ruses to work. Plus Carrey is more than enough of an accomplished actor to pull off the tender and desperate moments (of which there are many).
I would have, however, liked to see more from Ewan McGregor’s role. Perhaps, the book upon which I Love You Phillip Morris is based has him written in that way or maybe, and this is my assumption (yes, I know it will make an ass out of me), first time directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa relinquished their creative control to Mr. Carrey so the movie could be all about him. Either way, Phillip starts off promising, but is soon relegated to the back burner — used more for a grounding mechanism to reel in Steve when the plot called for it rather than his true soul mate.
Had Ficarra and Requa kept the focus more on the relationship (when focused upon earlier in the movie, it was more touching than expected) throughout and not just the zany escapades employed to keep it, they would have produced a film that was more balanced. I Love You Phillip Morris is, no matter how you cut though, an interesting story to watch unfold. Steven Russell, you really lived one helluva life (now, unfortunately for him, spent under 23 hours of lockdown in a maximum security prison).