First, a confession- I used to be a pretty stellar Jim Carrey fan. For me, his oft-mentioned rubber-faced buffoonery just didn’t cheapen, no matter how many times I saw Liar Liar or The Mask. Heaven forgive me, I even quite enjoyed his take on Edward Nigma/The Riddler in Batman Forever (just imagine for a minute how that film would have worked with the same cast, but with Tim Burton still in charge!). Sadly, my passion for his work after Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind left me feeling oddly cold, especially considering how much I loved Carrey’s performance in that little gem.
Perhaps it was that my level of expectation changed in the wake of that more critic-friendly performance (for that read: less mugging), but every film from Eternal Sunshine… to the cinematic release of I Love You, Phillip Morris felt like backwards steps- culminating in 2008′s Yes Man, which looked way, way too much like Liar Liar 2.
And then, I heard about this movie- which from its synopsis and the cruder parts of the script (Ewan McGregor spitting semen into the sea, for instance) reads occassionally like a project the Farrelly Brothers should have made- and I cringed. The idea of Carrey playing with gutter humour, and adding a homosexual character to the screen through his inimitable, usually over-zealous filter looked like it could all end in disaster and accusations of raging homophobia.
Thankfully, my fears subsided around the time that the first trailer hit cinema screens, and from there on, I have waited impatiently for the opportunity to finally see the comic biopic. And if any slight doubt remained, by the end of the film, I was seriously doubting my presumptive nature.
You see, I Love You Phillips Morris is a great film. The script, adapted- incredibly from a real-life tale- by the men who brought us Bad Santa: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa is very good, and full of genuinely funny moments that allow Carrey to show off his physical comedy traits as well as his actual acting skill. The film is about as original as your likely to get from a comedy: basically Carrey plays Steven Russell, a seemingly normal family man, who decides to come out when he is almost killed in a car-crash and then finances his lavish lifestyle by becoming an outrageous con-man. The main events of the film centre on the blossoming romance between Russell and Ewan McGregor’s fellow inmate Phillip Morris when the former is eventually caught for his crimes, and the subsequent cons who puts on to spoil his love.
The success all hinges on the fact that the film never descends into pantomime (despite its beautiful farcities), and nor does it attempt to cast any kind of surreptitious judgement on the lifestyle choices of its characters (whether overt or covert). There may be a lot of jokes that are given life by the fact that Steve is gay- the initial reveal for instance is incredibly funny- but neither the script nor the performances attempt to depict gayness as grotesque, and a lot of the humour relies upon the throw-away delivery of some of the visual jokes (like that maritime ejaculation one).
The film also doesn’t use gayness as a cipher for another message- there is no tragedy of being (like in The Crying Game or Brokeback Mountain ), and no politicised agenda (like with Victim or Milk). Instead- and rightly so- the characters’ gayness is to be accepted as frankly as Russell’s compulsive nature.
There are the occasional moments of agenda- little nods to the fact that homosexuality isn’t yet acceptable in high-powered work environments (Steven actively hides his orientation at work for fear of persecution) and to the fact that society is still likely to colour a perfectly funny joke with distasteful bigotry to get a “bigger laugh” (in a wonderful montage outlining the genesis of Steven’s own joke). But there is little else to make the audience think it is being taught a lesson- and thank God for that!
A lot also has to be said for the fact that there is no attempt to change the events of Steven Russell’s incredibly compelling life to incorporate a lesson. This is certainly no cautionary tale: and because of Carrey’s performance you actually find yourself rooting for Russell, even as he commits some of the lowest acts imaginable. He is utterly compelling as the con-man with a heart (perhaps too much of one), and is never presented as a sad-case: we are encouraged to empathise with him, even despite his outlandish behaviour, and never pity him.
This is definitely one of Carrey’s best performances (as espoused by EVERY single review so far), and certainly the best since Eternal Sunshine… and there are limited occasions where his “acting audacity” (I won’t say over-acting) appears to the detriment of the performance. This is Carrey though, so there are the odd times when he gives just a little too much, but this is the first time since Eternal Sunshine… that his serious acting skill isn’t over-earnest. During the third act, when Steven is visibly deteriorating thanks to contracting Aids, the performance is particularly good, and pretty darn touching. Without spoiling it, it all makes the final reveal very affecting, laced as it is with a disarming amount of real depth (just like the rest of the film really).
The other star of the show, Ewan McGregor, is on considerably more restrained form, and has a lot less to work with (this is, after all a tale that seeks to objectify him rather than offer him as a fully-formed character), but he is lovingly portrayed and offers the perfect antithesis to Russell’s hyperactive effervescence.
Carrey (and McGregor to a lesser extent) play their characters for laughs, but crucially never invite the audience to poke fun at them because they are gay, which is unfortunately quite rare for a main-stream comedy (just look at Chuck and Larry for an immediate example). The comedy is more about the tragedy of Carrey’s compulsions- the pathetic inevitability that every attempt to be with his beloved is doomed to failure and a return to prison- and the colossal idiocy behind the majority of his grand schemes, coupled with his sheer gall and tenacity in pulling them off.
If there has to be a criticism, I would say that McGregor and Carrey don’t really have the best on-screen chemistry. It isn’t necessarily that they don’t convince in their roles, it’s just that the characters aren’t immediately compatible as a couple. That is perhaps more down to the fact that Steven is a far more fleshed-out character- he has a back-story and substance, but we are never really given enough to convince why Steven is so taken with his softly-spoken, gentle love object.
But that is merely a slight concern, as the film is a genuinely enjoyable experience, and one of the best romantic comedies of recent memory.
Sadly, not on a par with the film itself at all. The short Making Of featurette is just a puff piece, with limited substance and even less to spark the interest, and a conspicuous lack of any real focus on the real Steven Russell which should surely have been the star of the Extras had they been done right. Additionally there are some interviews- rather self-congratulatory if you ask me- and not a lot of anything else. A shame.