Jim Carrey stars in the wildly outrageous tale of a spectacularly charismatic con man’s journey from small-town businessman to flamboyant white-collar criminal, who repeatedly finds himself in trouble with the law and on the lam – all in the name of love. Costarring Ewan McGregor, I Love You Phillip Morris is an unbelievably true comedy that’s being called “the best performance of Carrey’s career” (Village Voice).
eyelights: Jim Carrey’s performance. its offbeat true-life story.
eyesores: its conventional structure. the minor editing issues.
“Sometimes you have to shave a little off the puzzle piece just to make it fit.”
‘I Love You Phillip Morris’ is a 2009 motion picture based on the antics of con artist extraordinaire Steven Jay Russell. Starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor, the picture is remembered mostly for its incessant delays before release: although it was first screened at the Sundance Festival in January of 2009, it wouldn’t see the light of day in North America in limited release until December 5, 2010.
It didn’t even get a wide release. At its peak, in the week of January 16, 2011, the picture found a home in just under 100 cinemas. If one compares this to the 3000+ screen roll-outs of most major releases, one can safely conclude that the odds were stacked against ‘I Love You Phillip Morris’. And yet, despite these impediments, the comedy recouped its budget – albeit mostly overseas.
So what was it that made the picture so difficult to release in North America (and likely around the world)? The main one was the gay content. Although, by 2009, gay culture had gained enough acceptance that ‘Brokeback Mountain’ was both a commercial and critical smash, ‘I Love You Phillip Morris’ was considered objectionable enough that it wasn’t getting any traction anywhere.
Apparently the picture got re-edited in order to be palatable enough to pick up a distributor, but even then it had to rise above countless hurdles. Strangely enough, the final result is incredibly tame in comparison to a lot of other films. Which makes you wonder. Admittedly its most suggestive sequence is 10 minutes into the picture, but you don’t see much and not for very long.
Well, perhaps people objected to seeing Jim Carrey getting buck wild with a husky dude. Ever wanted to see Carrey get sweaty? You have been served! With Leslie Mann (who plays Russell’s spouse) and with this man. I mean, I myself never really ever considered watching him in a sex scene, being more of a comic than a romantic lead, but it certainly didn’t offend me in any way.
So what’s the deal?
In any case, this bungled release is everyone’s loss. ‘I Love You Phillip Morris’ is a terrific movie. Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who also penned the inimitable ‘Bad Santa‘, it falls along the lines of the Coen Brothers’ more eccentric fare, like ‘Raising Arizona‘, but with fewer of the quirks and much less of the flair that makes the Coens so uniquely appealing.
In other words, it could have been a great Coens movie. But, as Ficarra and Requa’s debut, it’s pretty darned good. It’s truly unfortunate that it was buried. It not only offers a hilariously jaw-dropping true-life crime story (Russell was so clever and gutsy that he scammed everyone, even getting himself out of jail four times!), but it also stands as one of Jim Carrey’s best performances.
Carrey is utterly convincing in the part of Russell, using his finely honed dramatic skills to play the seriousness of the part but also injecting his comedic talent into so that the character is equally funny. Carrey also adds enough intelligence into the part that his cleverness is never in doubt. Consequently, we believe that this fantastical character and his antics are true, even as they boggle the mind.
What I found interesting was that Carrey sort of looked like a young John Waters, which leaves me to wonder if he might play the eccentric filmmaker in a biopic someday. Meanwhile, McGregor was pretty good as the titular character, the man whom Russell falls headlong in love for. In his hands, Philip is just sweet, totally adorable. His accent was questionable but he was otherwise solid.
Aside for the aforementioned minimal amount of idiosyncrasies in the picture, my only other issue is with the editing of the picture, in that, for some reason, the scenes were cut together from noticeably different takes. I wondered if that was entirely unavoidable, because it’s always bothersome to see a person’s head or hair move substantially when you away and back to them.
And yet there were some inspired sequences likes when Russell leaves in a cab, with the camera following the vehicle’s movements, making a complete 360 degree turn to eventually find the same taxi arrive in the opposite direction and in a different location. I’m sure it’s not a new shot, but I thought it was exactly the kind of playfulness that the picture needed more of.
So, with clever scenes like this, why the editing issues?
All in all, though, ‘I Love You Phillip Morris’ is a fine picture and it’s a damn shame that few people got to see merely because of its gay content. In this day and age, that shouldn’t even be a factor. Alas it is. Well, give me a director’s cut any day; I’ll watch it. It may not be as quirky as the Coens’ best fare, but imagine ‘Catch Me If You Can’ made by them and tell me if you’d miss that.
I’m sure glad I didn’t.
Date of viewing: July 12, 2015