Whatever the crowds thought they were getting into at the January 2009 Sundance Film Festival premiere of I Love You Phillip Morris, it probably wasn’t this: a scene, less than five minutes into the picture, in which Jim Carrey engages in very sweaty, very aggressive, very loud intercourse with another man. (“Oh, did I forget to mention I’m gay?” his character, an avuncular con man named Steven Russell, guilelessly announces in voice-over.) I was at that Sundance screening, and you could feel the tension settle into the auditorium. It wasn’t just the graphic sex that made people so uncomfortable either. It was the way co-writers and co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (who wrote Bad Santa together) glided from mockery to tenderness and the way Carrey’s performance was at once wildly antic and sweetly restrained—as if The Mask and Brokeback Mountain had somehow been mashed together by a malfunctioning DVD player. In another era, this independently financed movie probably would have been acquired and marketed on the strength of such outrageous content, as a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. But I Love You Phillip Morris had the misfortune of premiering just as the world economy was in free fall, and none of the well-known distributors wanted to take a chance on it. A deal was eventually struck, months after the festival, with Consolidated Pictures Group, but the opening date was changed at least four times over the ensuing eighteen months. By the time it turned up, in a highly edited version, on transatlantic flights (after having played theatrically in Europe earlier this year), it was starting to seem as if it would never receive a proper American release.
Time to hit the reset button. I Love You Phillip Morris, which is based on the real-life exploits of a Houston con artist who, after meeting the love of his life in prison, broke out from behind bars multiple times in order to be reunited with him, was reclaimed from Consolidated by its producers. They subsequently sold the film to another distributor, Roadside Attractions. Nearly two years after its Sundance premiere, it arrives in limited release this month; if the Internet is to be believed, Roadside is even determined to push Carrey for a Golden Globe nomination, which he amply deserves. Only time will tell if a movie that has taken on the air of a stinker can somehow be rehabilitated. But in many respects the delay for
I Love You Phillip Morris might prove fortuitous: Same-sex marriage and “don’t ask, don’t tell” debates continue to rage around the country, and gay teen suicide, like the death of a thirteen-year-old Cypress boy named Asher Brown, in September, has become a tragically commonplace topic on the nightly news; in October, openly gay Fort Worth City Council member Joel Burns turned into an unexpected viral sensation after delivering a speech at a council meeting about being bullied as an adolescent. Now comes this unabashedly in-your-face movie to boldly consider what it means to be gay and Texan, and to remind us that—no matter how much the legal system might insist otherwise—the love between two men sometimes can’t be denied. Even if one of those men happens to be a pathological liar with a fondness for fishnet underwear.
Based on former Houston Press reporter Steve McVicker’s 2003 nonfiction book of the same name, I Love You Phillip Morris introduces us to Steven Russell in Virginia Beach, where he works as a police officer and lives with his religious wife, Debbie (Leslie Mann). The couple eventually move to Texas, where Russell lands a job at Sysco, but boredom—not to mention his desire for other men—soon wins out. He leaves Debbie, moves in with a man, and takes to a life of fraud in order to finance his luxury lifestyle. “Is the gay thing and the stealing something that goes hand in hand?” Debbie asks, after Russell is first arrested. The line gets a laugh, though the laugh sticks in your throat. I Love You Phillip Morris sees Russell’s illegal behavior as an extension of his closeted sexuality—a politically incorrect notion, to be sure, but one that I suspect many Texas gay men will be able to identify with. In a state so steeped in masculine iconography and so deeply influenced by religion (at one point, even a cabdriver tries to preach the word of Jesus to Russell), you can’t live as a gay person without also being made to feel like an outcast and a criminal. Sprung from prison, Russell passes himself off first as a lawyer and later secures a job as an insurance company executive, using a fabricated résumé. When you’re queer in Texas, I Love You Phillip Morris asserts, a knack for performance is essential. You have to learn to “play it straight.”
For its first twenty minutes, I Love You Phillip Morris has a grand time conjuring up a larger-than-life portrait of Russell. Slim, his dark hair swept back, and speaking in a broad Southern drawl, Carrey plays him as a kind of foulmouthed, hypersexualized version of his Liar Liar character. But the triumph of Ficarra and Requa’s script is that what starts out as a black comedy sneakily turns into l’amour fou—a rollicking, earnest, improbably affecting love story. During his first stint in prison, Russell meets Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a younger, gentle-spirited Southerner doing time for grand larceny. The filmmakers manage a marvelous feat, poking fun at the daffy romance that blossoms (at one point, the two actors slow-dance to Johnny Mathis’s “Chances Are” while a prison riot erupts just outside their cell) without tipping over into condescension. Part of this has to do with the half-mad intensity of Carrey’s and McGregor’s performances, whose eyes light up with pure electricity every time they gaze upon each other. But the larger point is that Ficarra and Requa have a deep respect for the scoundrel at the center of this story. It turns out that everything Russell did—posing as a lawyer to secure Morris an early release; bilking his insurance firm out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, which got him thrown back in jail—he did for love.
The final third of the film chronicles Russell’s repeated prison escape attempts, each more bizarre and potentially hazardous to his health than the previous one. Having freed himself from one societal closet and met the man of his dreams, he isn’t about to be trapped inside another. According to the concluding credits, the real Russell is currently serving a life sentence, with 23 hours each day in solitary confinement. He received this harsh punishment, the movie claims, because his multiple escapes had so publicly embarrassed then-governor George W. Bush. The last-minute broadside strikes a discordant note: Until that point, I Love You Phillip Morris has made its fierce case for marriage equality—for the right of two men to be together, no matter how determinedly the state contrives to keep them apart—without ever once climbing onto a soapbox. Fortunately, I Love You Phillip Morris recovers quickly. I give nothing away by describing the very last moments, which find Carrey’s Russell racing across a prison yard, a maniacally toothy smile spreading across his face, chased by a group of exasperated guards. The camera pans to the bright blue sky to find a fluffy white cloud in the perfect shape of a penis and testicles.
That about says it all. I Love You Phillip Morris may have been too much for the crowds at Sundance in 2009—and it’s likely going to be too much for most viewers now—but a work this brazen and original will find an audience, one way or another. It’s irrepressible in every sense of the word.