This film recco post is by Jahan Bakshi who loved ILUPM for its sheer irreverence & light-footed, breezy direction. For more, read on…
Nearly 22 months after it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2009, I Love You Philip Morris finally managed to get a somewhat shoddy release towards the end of last year. Sad, because this is probably one of the most fun, under-recognized and daring Hollywood films of the year gone by.
The story of how and why this huge delay happened (despite the starry presence of Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor) is pretty interesting in itself, but not quite as fascinating as the story of Steven Jay Russel, a con-man who’s currently serving a 144-year jail sentence for assorted charges, including felony escape and embezzlement.
I’m lazy and bad with summaries, so I’ll just supply the one from IMDb here:
Steven Russell is happily married to Debbie, and a member of the local police force when a car accident provokes a dramatic reassessment of his life. Steven becomes open about his homosexuality and decides to live life to the fullest – even if it means breaking the law. Steven’s new, extravagant lifestyle involves cons and fraud and, eventually, a stay in the State Penitentiary where he meets sensitive, soft-spoken Phillip Morris. His devotion to freeing Phillip from jail and building the perfect life together prompts Steven to attempt- and often succeed at- one impossible con after another.
Now, replace Philip Morris with- say, Phyllis Morris, and this would be perfectly wholesome Hollywood fare- a regular romantic con-caper. Well, at first glance, at least. When filmmakers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa pitched the film, they were asked ‘Could Philip Morris be a girl?’
Of course he couldn’t. Because this is a true story. As incredible and ridiculous as the events in the film seem, it’s actually fairly accurate, save for the usual cinematic liberties (and in a year that has seen The Social Network, who cares about accuracy anyway?). No wonder then, that the film starts with a header to remind us: ‘This really happened. It really did.’
But instead of peddling this as the ubiquitously sensitive ‘gay film’, the film is terrifically nonchalant and absolutely blasé about the sexuality of its characters. It’s that rare film that never falls prey to the sentimentality and melancholic self-pity that accompanies mainstream portrayals of homosexuality. By being blissfully coarse, non-conformist and lacking any political correctness, I Love You Philip Morris subtly pushes cinematic and social boundaries, but without any self-conscious fuss; it remains quietly subversive and calmly assured throughout its schizophrenic, hyper-kinetic narrative. It derives quirky comedy from a few homosexual stereotypes (‘Being gay is expensive’, remarks Steven hilariously), but never stoops to making cheap shots; we laugh along with its lead characters: refreshingly and unapologetically amoral, yet full of heart, humor and vibrancy. The dignity with which the characters are portrayed, including Steven’s hilariously orthodox Christian wife, makes sure that none of them feel like cardboard caricatures.
The wide tonal range of this film- from slapstick, borderline farcical to tenderly romantic to achingly tragic- might unsettle many viewers, but the unconventional treatment worked very well for me. And just like Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful (okay, really strange comparison but) this is another film that couldn’t have worked if not for its leading man, who holds it together and keeps it from falling apart. Jim Carrey is outstandingly good here, his rubber-faced glib persona serving as the perfect bouncing board for Steven’s wild, unpredictable character. He’s absolutely no-holds-barred and such a pleasure to watch, lending his character both charisma and believability. And Ewan McGregor is a delight as his timid, blonde lover; the perfect innocent foil to Carrey’s incorrigible rogue. Together, they make for a charming pair.
‘I Love You Philip Morris’ is not a flawless film. It’s imperfect by design, a tad exhausting and certainly one that will polarize viewers. But it makes for really interesting cinema and deserves to be seen, because quite simply- it defies categorization. Like Steven Russel himself, the film fits into so many guises that by the end, you don’t know what it really is. Which for me, far from being bad, was quite remarkable. After all, what better thing could a film do, than embody the very unputdownable free spirit of the man it is about?
Catch it, for sure.