Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Love: I Love You Phillip Morris

It's taken a lot for I Love You, Phillip Morris to finally make it to theaters.  The film made its debut at Sundance in 2009, two years ago this January.  After the festival outing, in spite of positive word of mouth and the star-power of its two leads, Phillip Morris became tangled in any number of release issues.  It moved in mysterious ways.  Studios signed on and off, release dates came and went, the internet began to speculate that the next time we saw I Love You, Phillip Morris would be a direct to DVD appearance with no fanfare and poor cover art.  All the while, people talked.  All the while, rumors of the film's scandalous genius became greatly exaggerated.  I Love You, Phillip Morris is in many ways a risky, at times almost fearless comedy.  Based on the true, stranger than fiction story of Texas con artist Steven Russell (currently serving a 144-year sentence for his slippery ways), the film passes by as effortlessly as a South Beach, spring break take on Catch Me If You Can.  Jim Carrey, Hollywood's premiere talent for frenetic, physically expressed comedy, takes Russell's character to cheerfully outlandish heights.  Carrey is perfect in the role, always believably enthusiastic.  As Russell defrauds system after system, Carrey has just the right knack for blending pure absurdity with a likable awkwardness that keeps the viewer invested.  As his too tight grin feels uneasy, his eyes express tremendous amounts of pathos.  So much so that even when you discern he's an unreliable, shifty narrator with a penchant for being reprehensible (with the best intentions), you like Steven Russell, you have to.  He's just trying to live the dream, the crooked way he knows how.
At the core of I Love You, Phillip Morris is the love story itself.  No, if you weren't already aware, this isn't another lampooning of the tobacco industry, this is a big gay love story.  Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor) is a fair-haired, soft-spoken man Steven meets in prison, he's fearful and naive, easily swayed by Steven's magical pull with the prison population.  That's the thing about con men, they know exactly how to get what they want.   In this case, Steven gets Phillip along with everything they need to carry out their live-in relationship with what amounts to prison luxury.  As Phillip, McGregor is his usual adorable self.  In fact, his performance here feels so precious and understated that it would be easy to write him off as merely riding the waves of Carrey's manic tour de force.  Mistake.  I Love You, Phillip Morris works as a comedy exactly because, in the face of our unreliable protagonist, McGregor can make us truly believe in the love that exists between the characters.  There's a little bit of a wink and a smile, sure.  McGregor knows he's toying with stereotypes.  And yet, he is the driving power behind Carrey.  It's McGregor's adopted innocence that allows the film to transition from an indie, gay take on your standard Jim Carrey movie, to strangely sentimental, really rather pleasant criminally inclined romantic comedy.

Yet, while their relationship works in pieces, but is never allowed to fully flourish or develop.  When Phillip and Steven are together on screen, they effectively double their charisma.  The problem, however, is that past their early phases, the focus shifts away from their romance and towards Steven's lies. The whole thing then, down to their library meet-cute, becomes textbook rom com: a little bit cheesy, a little bit too adorable, and filled with grand romantic gestures.  It's mildly repetitive, relying on slight tweaks to overused conventions which, while at times hilarious, halt the maturation of the love story.  So, while I could believe their schlocky affair in prison, as they moved into the real world, something felt amiss.  Like Steven Russell himself, the narrative can't be expected to stay in one place for very long.  It slips and slides as it attempts to balance the caper elements with  romanticism and hilarity.  Truth is, the film is best when it's subverting social norms with a smile, the nastier the better, but it shies away from that a little too often.  In its heart, I Love You Phillip Morris is a black comedy that's been gussied up to feel chipper.  For the most part it works.  Carrey's brand of humor has never been used better, and the film is funny enough, floating easily above the ethical issues of Steven's crimes.  Ultimately, though, there's something of a throwaway quality to the whole deal, and I couldn't escape the sense that while I'd laughed a fair amount, those humorous moments were covering up  one hell of a scam.




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