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I Love You Phillip Morris

December 27, 2010

I Love You Phillip Morris

If the Academy gave an award for “stranger than fiction”, a good case could be made that I Love You Phillip Morris has it all sewn up. And yet, as the opening titles remind us, this really happened. It really did.

Steven Russell (Jim Carey) was adopted by a family in Virginia Beach. Learning the truth didn’t upset him, but rather drove him to be “the best person he could be.” He married a sweet, religiously kitschy woman, raised a lovely daughter, played the organ at his church, and worked on the local police force. He also used his position to track down his birth mother. When that didn’t work out as planned, he picked up his family and moved to Texas, where he got a job as a wholesale produce distributor.

Steven Russell was also living a lie: he was gay as the day is long, and had been basically since he could remember. But he was pretty good at lying and keeping a secret life, until it hit him like a speeding truck that he had to drop the charade and be himself. He left his wife and daughter in Texas, moved to Miami, and took up with a hot young boyfriend.

But Steven’s gay lifestyle was also very expensive. Having few other options — besides the unacceptable one of not living so high on the gay hog — he puts his skill at lying to good use and carves out a tidy living for himself as a con man and insurance fraudster. Until, that is, he inevitably gets caught.

It’s in prison that Russell meets the love of his life, Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). Phillip, for his part, is a dumb-but-sweet serial rent boy who kept a rented car a bit longer than he was supposed to. Clearly Steven needed to put his skills to use again to be with Phillip, and to get them both out of prison.

And here’s where everything gets really bizarre, with a long sequence of brazen prison escapes and social flim-flammery, all for the sake of providing Phillip and himself with the opulent — and unimprisoned — life they deserve.

Carey is impeccable as Steven. He plays the affable con-man with a broad, impish grin that’s not too far from the one he used in The Mask. But his rubber face is cartoonishly expressive through a wide emotional range. He’s explored outside of straight (so to speak) comedy roles before, but he hasn’t had such a chance to run the full gamut in one film.

And McGregor pulls off his Georgia drawl surprisingly well. He communicates Phillip’s sweet, Pollyanna naïveté, always seeing the good nature in his partner and in the world, and he really is distraught when he learns that neither is all it appears to be.

Overall, the movie is hilarious in a way all too many comedies aren’t. It’s outlandish without being overwhelmingly zany, and even its bluer moments seem surprisingly classy. Other than the homosexual angle — which really shouldn’t be a problem, but the culture is what it is — it’s broadly appealing without being insultingly dumbed-down. It would be great if Hollywood would produce a lot more like it, but it’s also just the sort of thing that nobody but the Weinstein Company would have the guts to bring to the market.

Worth it: yes.
Bechdel test: fail.

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