By Don Simpson | December 24, 2010
Director: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Writer(s): John Requa, Glenn Ficarra, Steve McVicker (book, as Steven McVicker)
Starring: Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro, Antoni Corone, Brennan Brown, Michael Mandel
Jim Carrey has played many gay (meaning joyful) characters over the years — and he has probably had a few fags (meaning cigarettes) too — but I never suspected that he would play a homosexual character. So upon hearing of his casting in Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s (the writers of Bad Santa) directorial debut I Love You, Phillip Morris my biggest concern was whether or not Carrey’s portrayal of a homosexual man would be offensive to the LGBT community.
The massive wave of hype after the Sundance premiere of I Love You, Phillip Morris in January 2009 (yes, nearly two years ago!) eased that concern, so then I turned to the question of whether or not I could stomach sitting through another Carrey film during my lifetime. With Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — Carrey’s only worthwhile attempt at a straight dramatic role — as the clear exception, I have hated every other Carrey film. To be honest, I have not thought too much about why I detest Carrey so damn much…but I can only guess that it has something to do with his rubbery facial expressions (that seem even more exaggerated than most silent film stars) and his clownish and shrill delivery of dialogue. His [mostly hyperactive] characters seem to me like shallow and superficial caricatures of unbridled buffoonery. Nothing more, nothing less.
Several close friends recommended I Love You, Phillip Morris to me, as a toned-down Carrey performance with material that was right for him. But after watching the film, I kind of felt like I was bamboozled into sitting through yet another wild and crazy Carrey performance. Worst of all, I think I kind of liked it. Carrey does tone down his performance in order to make the romantic and dramatic scenes work, but otherwise he plays Steven Russell somewhat similar to how he handled Truman Burbank (but at least Carrey does not channel Lloyd Christmas, Ace Ventura, the Cable Guy or Fletcher Reede here).
Rather than being as toned-down as Joel Barish (Eternal Sunshine), Carrey’s performance as Steven works because the character suits him so well. Why? Because he was able to approach Steven as another one of his shallow and superficial caricatures — and I do not mean that in a bad way. We are informed during the opening credits that this film is based on a true story (it really is!). The real Steven Russell is still serving an unprecedented 144-year prison sentence, not because he murdered anyone, but because he is a con man who embarrassed corporations, judges and prisons in “fucking Texas” time and time again. In many ways, Steven is not all that dissimilar from Frank Abagnale Jr. (Catch Me If You Can) and Mark Whitacre (The Informant!). The reason Carrey works so well in this role is because he is anything but a realistic actor — and being that no one truly knows the “real” Steven (probably not even Steven), Carrey is able to utilize his performance style to convey Steven’s falseness to tremendous effect.
Steven was adopted at birth (in some ways, the ultimate con). As a churchgoing police officer, Steven marries Debbie (Leslie Mann), a pure as snow Christian woman with whom he fathers two children. Steven is in the midst of exploring homosexuality when he is nearly killed in an auto accident. The near-death experience prompts Steven to come completely out of the closet.
Debbie asks a doctor if Steven’s “gay thing and the stealing” are related. This is intended as a joke, but in the context of I Love You, Phillip Morris the relationship between gayness and stealing could not be more real. In order to “live high on the gay hog”, Steven evolves into a full-fledged con man — committing credit card and insurance fraud and doctoring his resume to earn himself various management positions in the foodservice industry, eventually landing himself a job as CFO of North American Medical Management where he is able to embezzle hundreds of thousands of dollars.
While serving a sentence in Harris County Jail, Steven meets a dumb blond, the titular Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). It is love at first sight, prompting Carrey and McGregor to realistically smooch and caress and screw just as a leading couple in a heterosexual romantic comedy would…even while in jail. Time and time again, Steven successfully finds ways to con himself and Phillip out of jail. This is where I Love You, Phillip Morris transforms into an amoral caper story, a tale of outlaw love on the lam. In complete subversion to our expectations of what a “gay film” should be, these characters are by no means role models or social paragons. Steven is an American who is no less ruthless or brash or addicted to money and goods than the [presumably heterosexual] capitalist world he inhabits. I Love You, Phillip Morris does not attempt to persuade anyone that gays are good people, but it does function as a very convincing argument that gays are exactly like everyone else and should be treated as such. Amen!