By Ezra Stead
I Love You Phillip Morris, France / USA, 2009
Written and Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
This is one of the best and most unusual romantic comedies I have ever seen. The way it subverts the genre and toys with audience expectations is truly exceptional, which is probably what should be expected from co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the writing team behind the highly unusual and subversive Christmas movie Bad Santa (2003). They followed that with the lazy Bad News Bears remake (2005), which basically retread the same ground in a much less funny and original way, but for that I shall give them a pass, mainly because Santa is so severely excellent (it has replaced Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life as the traditional Christmas Eve movie in my family).
I Love You Phillip Morris is a film that lives up to the promise shown in that previous work. It begins by assuring us that “This really happened … No, really, it did,” a disclaimer that becomes increasingly necessary as the story unfolds. Jim Carrey plays Steven Russell, whose book I Love You Phillip Morris: A True Story of Life, Love, and Prison Breaks provided the source material for the film, and it is quite possibly the very best performance of his entire career. Carrey, who was always known as an energetic physical comedian but not really seen as a seriously good actor until the late ’90s when he began tackling weightier roles in films like Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998) and Milos Forman’s Man on the Moon (1999), dips into his whole repertoire here, employing his trademark grinning facial contortions and manic slapstick while also tugging the heartstrings with a portrayal of surprising emotional depth. This variety of technique is perfectly suited to the character of Steven, a con artist who is never quite what he seems and constantly pulls from a huge bag of manipulative tricks to get what he wants and needs, first because, as he puts it, “Being gay is really expensive,” and later in doing whatever it takes to be with the love of his life.
This, of course, is the title character, one Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a sweet, gentle, southern-accented ingenue who Steven meets and falls instantly in love with in the prison library. Using his impressive influence within the prison system, Steven soon moves into Phillip’s cell, which is haunted by the “Screecher” (Andrew Sensenig), a neighboring prisoner who screams all through the night, preventing anyone on the cell-block from getting any sleep. When Phillip realizes that Steven has paid another inmate to beat the Screecher senseless in order to have him transferred out of the block, he proclaims the act (in a moment somewhat reminiscent of Lorraine Bracco’s admission in Goodfellas that Ray Liotta’s pistol-whipping of her attempted rapist neighbor “turned me on”) “the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for me.” Of course Phillip, and we the audience, have no idea just how far Steven is willing – and, amazingly, able – to go for his love; arranging a prison beating is a mere trifle, the equivalent of a store-bought Valentine’s Day card, compared to what comes later.
Steven’s love for Phillip cannot be restrained, and he would rather be in prison with him than free without. He would also rather Phillip be in prison than free without him, which is understandably a source of one of their biggest disagreements, but for all of Steven’s rampant deceitfulness, his heart is always in the right place, and we never stop rooting for him. Of course his behavior is self-destructive – unbelievably so, which continually leads us back to the opening caveat – but that is precisely why it is so endearing. It is all very poetic and romantic to talk about being willing to die for your lover, but Steven never even thinks twice about actually taking this chance. The lengths to which he goes are truly astonishing, and it would be shameful of me to reveal them here.
It is hard to find significant fault with this film, but the one mildly distracting element for me was McGregor’s Texas accent, which felt a little forced, especially in the prison library scene, in which Steven and Phillip fall fast in love. Not all European actors can convincingly pull off American accents with the skill of a Christian Bale (even the great Tilda Swinton struggled with the word “medicine” in her otherwise flawless performance in 2008’s Julia), and McGregor’s difficulty in this scene makes the love-at-first-sight moment that much harder to believe. However, the strength of Carrey’s performance and the excellent writing make even this scene work better than it probably should; Ficarra and Requa are an impeccable writing team and have now shown themselves to be equally good in the director’s chair(s). I can’t wait to see what they do with someone else’s script in this summer’s Crazy, Stupid, Love. Assuming their taste in selecting material is as good as their own writing, it’s sure to be excellent.
Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com.