Tuesday, 13 April 2010

I Love You Phillip Morris (2010)

* * * *

(Dir. John Requa, Glenn Ficarra, 2010)

Comedy is winning the battle of genres so far in 2010:
Youth in Revolt vellicated even the most pious of indie-sceptics, and Kick Ass is a real gem. And with less to make us guffaw, but with more to make us think, I Love You Phillip Morris is emerging as another success-story.

Jim Carrey is sensibly casted as gay, Texan, cop-turned-lawyer, Steven Russell. Russell became a cop in order to find his mother, who gave him away in his infancy. But after finding her and being rejected by her again, Russell decides to give up his masquerade and live according to his true passions honestly, or so we think. He ends his marriage, moves away, begins a gay relationship and masters a variety of frauds until he is eventually caught. This involves a particularly amusing sequence of stunts in which Jim Carrey is throwing himself onto an escalator and slipping up in a supermarket after oiling the floor. In prison, Russell meets and falls in love with Phillip Morris, an ideal, ignorant partner, played powerfully by Ewan McGregor. Here in prison, where he will return again and again, Russell reads law and passes exams to set up an amusing career-switch upon his release.

Steven Russell is a brilliant plethora of irony and hedonism from first to final frame. Despite his reckless and selfish behaviour, there are signs of a moral and intelligent person. On the golf course, when one of his fellow lawyers transforms his own clean and clever lawyer's joke into something racist, Russell waits behind and murmurs, "****ing moron". He never seems to forget that he is a gay Texan, though the reason his extraordinary spirit is so believable is that it exists independently of any personality trait. Not despite, but through its explicit homosexual content, this film is better summed up as a
black, rather than gay (as it has been referred to), comedy. This is one of the most admirable victories for Carrey and McGregor's acting and for Ficarra and Requa's directing; that homosexuality is communicated neither as an unconscious threat nor desire, but as a conscious by-product of a shop selling deliciously smart satire. And at the check-out, subtitles filter across the screen to tell us that this sensationalist story really did take place, in Texas, right under George Bush's nose.

Unfortunately, "I love you, Phillip Morris" is a title-line unnecessarily forced into an otherwise absorbable screenplay. When Russell is transferred to another prison, and he and Morris are separated for the first time, Russell screams from his departing bus to a chasing Morris, "I love you", and then gawkishly again, "I love you, Phillip Morris". Another way of looking at it is this: there's a reason Lean didn't title his 1965 classic, "I love you, Dr Zhivago". Or, to be genre-specific,
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy was never going to be "I love you, Veronica Corningstone". It's plain old, irritating kitsch. At a glance, this review might come across as fastidious, especially since the film is based on a book whose enormous title contains the words, "I love you Phillip Morris". However the film's title is significant in its cutesy tarnishing of a cool comedy so blessed by its based-on-a-true-story brilliance. And yet it can not be easy to market so precocious a project.

I Love You Phillip Morris is a deep and wonderful sleep from which we are vigorously awoken, over and over. There are merry and sober phases whose contrasts are predictably stark and irksomely repetitive, until a final, magnificent twist I will not spoil. But licensed to act with unrestrained passion, Carrey can perform at his flexible best, nodding to his charismatic lead in The Mask, his court-room clownishness in Liar Liar, the suffering in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and more recently, to the carpe diem in Yes Man. After each twist and turn has expired, Russell edifies his ridiculous relationship with Morris (as well as our relationship with the film) thus: beneath all this furious lusting and laughing and lying, there is a meaningfulness and a love to be cherished. And he's right.

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