A (very true to the) real life story of Steven Russel (Jim Carrey) - a Christian, a family man, and a closet homosexual - who after a devastating car crash decides he's going to ditch the lies and be true to himself. And that means moving to Miami, becoming as queer as a $12 note, and starting a life of crime, deception and fraud to fund his exuberant "out" lifestyle.
When the conman is finally caught - he goes to prison in Texas where he meets and instantly falls in "love" with the effeminate, vulnerable Philip Morris (Ewan McGregor). The rest of the story documents the jail-breaks, cons and increasingly incredible antics that Russel employs to get close and stay close to Morris. The true story (1, 2) is faithfully represented on screen - and is so strange that it warrants the "This really happened... It really did" on-screen message in the titles.
So that's the basic plot - but what is this film really about? I think the whole experience can be summed up in four points:
- An unflinching and uncompromising look at gay sex. You expect some boundary-pushing stuff from the directors of BAD SANTA - and I LOVE YOU PHILIP MORRIS doesn't disappoint. If you're uncomfortable with seeing men bone, you've got a real problem here. Whole sequences revolve around homosexual fellatio. Russel's sexuality is revealed by a graphic and unexpected scene of anal intercourse. Ewan McGregor gives more head than a hooker on a Saturday night. The big black guy behind me in the cinema repeatedly told his girlfriend "I'm not comfortable with this" while squirming. The depiction of sex in this film is pretty gritty and down to earth - and very funny - and challenges the Hollywood status quo of not depicting graphic homosexuality. It's an acquired taste - don't take your Granny.
- A parody of the "gay" scene, and the prejudice it faces. "Golf? But you're a homosexual!" says Morris to Russel as he tries to fit in in a homophobic Texan workplace. The gay stereotype is exposed as fake - Russel's obsession with being as "gay" as he can be takes him to a caricatured extreme which reflects his real character and feelings but little. Russel's wife and colleagues on the other hand comically reflect southern homophobia (and racism). "So does the gay thing and stealing thing go together?" asks Russel's evangelical Christian wife to his boyfriend. In this way both extremes are held up to ridicule. You could argue that they were easy targets though, and the attacks aren't substantial enough to form a really coherent thread.
- A raucous comedy that shows that real life is stranger than fiction. There's no doubting this film is funny. It wasn't made to shock - rather it was made primarily to amuse. Carrey and McGregor carry off the smitten gay couple perfectly - Carrey especially amuses throughout and gives a performance that thankfully relies little on rubber-faced humour, and far more on talent and comic timing. The sheer bare-faced cheek of his antics, and the exuberant gayness of whole flick, makes it utterly entertaining from beginning to end. It's worth seeing just for a laugh.
- A dark and tragic portrayal of a broken man. Other reviewers have interpreted I LOVE YOU PHILIP MORRIS as a romance. Don't be fooled, there's nothing romantic about it. Russel suffers acute separation anxiety due to his adoption and later summary rejection by his birth mother. He becomes the ultimate people-pleaser - defining his sense of worth by what others think of him, unable to tell the truth or approach anything resembling intimacy. This vacuum in his sense of identity drives him to attach to models and stereotypes of what he feels he ought to be - the best Christian ever, the best husband and father ever - then the most screaming queer ever, the biggest liar ever. Progressively deadened spiritually and emotionally, he seeks some sort of connection with life and feelings through compulsive thrill seeking - addictive spending, compulsive lying. Finally, he defines himself through a love-addicted and completely dishonest attachment to Philip Morris. Morris is complicit as the co-dependent in this - flattered by Russel's attentions and turning a blind eye to his obvious dysfunctions. Ultimately, Russel becomes nothing more than his pathology - a borderline personality in the truest sense - his sense of self completely eroded.
So in summary, this is a very black comic tragedy, looking the audience straight in the eye and never flinching from giving us reality, however ugly, sweaty or gay. The real tragedy of course is that it's a true story - Russel is a genuine product of a abandonment, dysfunctional family life, prejudice and stereotype.
His various addictions and compulsions are funny, but only in the sense that a visit to the asylum is funny. He represents the spiritual corruption and emptiness of man. His wife, through her prejudice, unwittingly stumbles on a truth - asking whether the gay thing and stealing thing go together. In Russel, we cannot be sure whether any part of his personality is genuine - or whether it is merely another attempt to self-define or self-affirm through some outside object or activity.
Russel is a pathetic character in the truest sense - his tragic end the inevitable conclusion of his many character flaws.
So, overall expect a shock, expect a challenge, expect a laugh - but don't expect to walk away happy.
This is a really solid film - the acting is consistently excellent, the way the story is told is clever, and it covers some very challenging subject matter. But it's not a romance, it's not DUMB AND DUMBER, and it's not for the fainthearted. With that caveat, it comes highly recommended.
I LOVE YOU PHILIP MORRIS played Sundance and Cannes 2009 and was released earlier this year in Belgium, France, Russia, Taiwan, Finland, Sweden, Estonia, Italy, Lithuania and Kazakhstan. It is currently on release in Japan, the UK and the Philippines. It opens next month in Iceland, Brazil, the Netherlands and Germany. It opens in the US on May 7th.