“Less of a comedy than a hilarious tragedy, I Love You Phillip Morris stars Jim Carrey ... as a character so criminal and gay it will leave auds both laughing and stunned. The rawness of the script and sexual bluntness of Carrey and Ewan McGregor’s onscreen romance could limit the film’s exposure, but curiosity about Carrey’s ‘conversion’ will be a big draw.”
That’s the lead from the review that ran in Variety following this film’s premiere. Why is it notable? Because it was published two years ago.
That’s right: The directorial debut of John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, the guys who wrote Bad Santa, has languished in Hollywood limbo since it proved the talk of Sundance way back in 2009. “Could limit the film’s exposure”? Even the movie industry’s paper of record failed to realize how much homosexual panic pervades the movie industry to this day.
Oh, Tinseltown has gradually grown comfortable with films about homosexuals — so long as they’re martyred or at least have expired by the closing credits (think Philadelphia, Milk and A Single Man — even Brokeback Mountain, for that matter). What it hasn’t figured out how to handle is a comedy in which the central characters are raunchily and unrepentantly gay, involved in criminal malfeasance, and based on real people who are still above ground.
Adapted from a 2003 book by former Houston Press reporter Steve McVicker, the film chronicles the exploits of con man Steven Russell (Carrey). When we’re introduced to him, he appears to be an all-American family man and police officer who lives in Virginia Beach, Ga., and plays the organ at the local church. Minutes into the movie, however, Steven narrowly survives a car wreck and vows never again to live a lie. “I’m gonna be a fag!” he announces to nonplussed paramedics. And then proceeds to live a series of ever-more-audacious lies.
Steven moves to Miami and maintains a lavish lifestyle with hot Latin boyfriend Jimmy (Rodrigo Santoro), buying everything in sight. “Being gay is really expensive,” he discovers, and resorts to forging checks and credit cards under multiple aliases, in addition to committing insurance fraud. This lands him in a Texas prison, where he meets delicate boyfriend Phillip Morris (McGregor).
The two fall head over heels for each other, and it must be said that everything Steven does from this point in the film on — however sociopathic — he does for love. Once on the outside, he masquerades as an attorney and actually succeeds in springing Phillip.
The first thing he wants is to support his new love in the style to which Steven has grown accustomed, so it’s time for the next charade. Steven forges credentials and lands a job as CFO at a major financial firm, where he develops an ingenious method of generating new revenue while secretly pocketing a 50 percent “commission.” A couple of gut-busting bits, a little offshore oral sex, and Steve is back in the big house. Worse for him, he’s in the doghouse. Phillip was clueless when it came to his compulsively criminal shenanigans.
Of course, the real Steve Russell wasn’t behind bars for long. He had the love of his life to get back to, and he concocted increasingly devious schemes for doing so, escaping from Texas prisons four times within five years. It’s an astonishing tale told with aplomb and great, wacked-out wit. So strange-but-true were Russell’s antics, the film can’t even hold them all. You’ve got to Google this guy. You’ll marvel at the stunts that didn’t make it into the movie.
The picture’s stars find themselves in uncharted waters and execute perfect swan dives into the daring material. McGregor does puppy-dog adorable without a trace of irony, and Carrey lets it rip like you wouldn’t believe. This is as fearless and funny a performance as he’s given. Something tells me it won’t quite prove the “big draw” Variety foresaw two years ago, but it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. I Love You Phillip Morris was worth the wait.
* Running time: 102 min.
* Rated: R
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