The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of I Love You Phillip Morris was for the “In Theatres” section of The Parallax Review.
by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor
Nothing is more frustrating than watching a director make a mess out of a good script. It’s even worse when the director also wrote the script. In the case of I Love You Phillip Morris, the writers/directors, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, had the good sense as screenwriters to let the true story of Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) and Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor) play out in all its demented glory. As directors, they fail to trust the audience to understand the inherent comedy of the situations and characters and force a string of juvenile sight gags, an obnoxiously “funny” score, and a pervasive tone of unneeded wackiness onto the film.
When we first meet Steven Russell, he’s a respected policeman in Georgia with a wife (Leslie Mann) and child. By the time the first act ends, he has admitted to his family that he is gay, quit the police force, moved to Florida, become a con man, and gone to prison. There, he meets the love of his life: Phillip Morris. That’s a lot of plot points to hit in less than thirty minutes, yet the script hums along, providing just enough information via Steven’s voiceover narration to color in the details.
It feels like I’ve been hearing about this film for the last five years. I’m sure that’s not true, but ever since Jim Carrey signed on to star in the film, the buzz has surrounded the fact that he and McGregor share several kisses in the film. I find this preoccupation with the sexual orientations of the characters to be sad. If anything, the fact that Steven and Phillip are gay is incidental. Their romance is played as just a relationship with normal ups and downs amplified by Steven’s nearly pathological inability to obey the law or tell the truth.
What’s more interesting about the film are the different scams and prison-escape attempts that Steven cooks up. A delusional soul if ever there was one, Steven lies not just to strangers that he’s scamming and prison officials that he’s duping, but also to Phillip, telling him upon their initial meeting that he’s a lawyer. Steven knows how he wants his life to be; he’s just unable to make that a reality by going through the normal channels. But through ingenuity, a flexible ethical code, and sheer willpower, he’s able to bluff his way into the life that he thinks he deserves for short amounts of time. He’s a fascinating character in the middle of a very twisty story. If only the directors had let the story play out naturally.
Ficarra and Requa make several cringe-worthy moves in the first act. There is the aforementioned “funny” score and sight gags (the most obvious being a cloud that looks like a penis), but the biggest problem in the early going is only partially their fault: Carrey’s performance. Carrey plays his early scenes as though he’s doing another Ace Ventura film. He mugs incessantly, throws his rubbery body and face around like he’s on stage selling it to the back row, and sports a southern accent that is just ludicrous. Ficarra and Requa’s inability to reign Carrey in during these crucial early scenes remains their most glaring problem.
But once Steven winds up in prison and meets Phillip, Carrey’s performance becomes just a shade more subtle. He doesn’t dial it down much, but it’s just enough to make Steven seem more like a calculating con man and less like a buffoon. Unfortunately, Carrey is left to shoulder most of the heavy lifting for the film. McGregor is fine, but his severely underwritten role causes him to disappear for huge chunks of the third act. With no one for Carrey to play off, the film relies too heavily on his voiceovers.
If only Ficarra and Requa had allowed the story to just tell itself, the film would have recovered nicely from Carrey’s shaky first act. But they throw in too many attempts at outlandish humor to match the outlandish story. Some of these bits work (Steven and Phillip slow dancing in their cell while guards beat a prisoner in the next cell), but most of them feel like desperate pleas for the audience to laugh. I would have been more than happy to see these scenes sacrificed in favor of exploring Steven’s relationship with his ex-wife and daughter in more detail or just giving a little more shading to Phillip’s character. The potential is there for Phillip to grow with an already present subplot about Steven casually sliding back into the closet. This obviously frustrates the more effeminate Phillip and is the source of the first real tension between the couple. But this branch of the story is quickly dropped in favor of an insipid scene of Steven trying to play golf for the first time.
There is a fascinating tale at the heart of I Love You Phillip Morris; you just have to wade through a lot of extraneous crap to get there. For that reason, I can’t quite recommend it. It’s entertaining more often than not and definitely surprising, but it never forms into a cohesive whole. It’s a major missed opportunity.
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