© 2010 Ray Wong
An oddball of a movie, I Love You Phillip Morris is a comedy, drama, satire, action, and love story all rolled into one. Oddest of all, it's all based on a true story.
Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) is a small town police officer happily married to Debbie (Leslie Mann). The only reason why Steven takes the job is to have access to the files that may lead him to his biological mother (Steven was adopted). When he finally locates his birth mother, he realizes she isn't what he's expected, and suddenly his life has no real purpose anymore. A car accident prompts Steven to embrace his true self and live life to the fullest: he comes out to the world as a gay man and divorces Debbie.
Steven moves to Miami and adopt a flamboyant lifestyle with boyfriend Jimmy (Rodrigo Santoro). To support their extravagance, Steven becomes a conman. Eventually, Steven gets caught and is sent to jail. There, he meets inmate Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a gentle homosexual who is serving time for fraud. They fall in love. Upon release, Steven manages to con his way through the legal system to set Phillip free. From there, Steven's obsession with being with Phillip leads him to a series of impersonations, jailbreaks, and frauds.
Jim Carrey (Yes Man) has tried to extend his range for a while now. He had limited success with dramas such as The Truman Show and disasters such as The Majestic. Playing a gay conman may very well be his most daring role, which is both dramatic and comedic. Carrey's flamboyant comedic talent fits the flamboyant, outrageous character perfectly. But it's his dramatic scenes that set this character apart from the rest. Somehow, Carrey is able to transcend the comedy to play a deeply flawed, complex, but three-dimensional character not just for laughs or ridicule. And believe, there's much to ridicule about (more on that later).
As the love of Steven Russell's life, Ewan McGregor (The Ghostwriter) is genuinely sweet, affectionate, and naive, a stark contrast to the frantic Carrey. While McGregor's performance is admirable, as usual, there's really nothing transcending about it, and he's often overshadowed by the more outlandish Carrey.
Leslie Mann (Funny People) has a small role as Steven's incredibly understanding wife and best friend. I mean, after all Steven has put her through, she's still by his side. Now that's a good woman. However, the role seems too one-note and Mann deserves better. Rodrigo Santoro (300) is sharp as Steven's flamboyant and beautiful boyfriend. We actually believe they can be real lovers.
Based on the true crime account of Steven Russell (who is currently serving 144 years in prison, a sentence that is not proportional to his crimes), the film is written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Bad Santa). They've taken an interesting, episodic approach to Russell's absurd story, and added quirks and broad comedy to it. The result is an odd, outlandish tale that often feels uneven. There are moments of comedic gold that fit Carrey like a glove, but there are also serious moments that test the best of dramatic actors. Sometimes, however, the storytelling is so fast-paced and convoluted that it becomes a parody of itself. I can't help but sense the pretension. It's a bit bothersome that Russell's life story is reduced to a series of jokes and ridicules.
That said, the relationships between these characters feel real and as broad as it is, the character development of Russell and Morris is rather solid. And that's very gutsy for Ficarra and Requa to portray a gay romance as raw and real and heartfelt in a satire like this.
Their direction is frantic and fast-paced; they often gloss over a long stretch of time and crimes with collages and spurts of quick cuts. Therefore, sometimes it's really difficult to fully understand what's going on. Spanning over a few years, the transitions are too often too quick for us to get a sense of time, or to really understand the motivations. But the production is handsome and the film has a glossy look and feel that almost mislead us into thinking it's something else other than a true crime story. OK, they say it's really a romance.
While I appreciate the filmmakers' courage to make this film (the subject matters and gay love story have caused tremendous production and distribution problems, especially in the US), I can't help but wonder if they've chosen the wrong treatment. Had it been a straight-up drama, it could have been better. As much as I admire the intent, I just don't love it.
Stars: Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro, Antoni Corone, Brennan Brown
Directors: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Writers: John Requa, Glenn Ficarra (based on Steven McVicker's nonfiction book)
Distributor: Roadside Attractions
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, strong language and drug use
Running Time: 102 minutes
Script – 6
Performance – 7
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 6.9 out of 10