And here’s something to frighten the horses and worry nervous straight boys: the long-delayed Sundance hit I Love You, Phillip Morris finally comes to town—on Christmas Day, no less. In case you don’t know, the film—which played well with both gay and straight viewers at Sundance—is a decidedly unusual romantic comedy starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor as gay lovers who meet in prison. The most outlandish thing about it, however, is that it’s essentially true. The film’s problem has been—and will continue to be, I fear—just exactly how to market it. It’s not just the gay aspect of the film, but also the outrageousness of the story, the stylized direction and writing, and the inability to quite pigeon-hole the film. Yes, it’s a romantic comedy (and a much better one than any straight one going right now—or all year, for that matter). It’s also a drama and ultimately a tragedy of sorts.
The gay element is certainly—and absurdly, in this day—an issue. The film is never graphic in what it shows (though some people head for the hills the minute two men kiss), but it’s not in the least bit reticent when it comes to talking about it. In fact, one of the movie’s funniest scenes involves a guided tour through a prison where it’s made bluntly clear that oral sex is invariably an option in almost any situation you can think of behind bars. Know this going in, because I don’t want letters about how I’ve recommended this film to unwary viewers. (And if you go in simply based on the star rating, that’s your problem.)
Carrey—in a bold performance—stars as Steven Russell, an upright, uptight, God-fearing, church-going police officer with a squeaky clean (and very Jesus-centric) wife, Debbie (Leslie Mann). Steven is also gay, and one day he simply decides to drop the pretense and live what he envisions as the “gay lifestyle,” which in his mind means being a flaming stereotype. This nets him a flashy Miami Beach apartment, a snazzy wardrobe and a hot Latin boyfriend (TV actor Rodrigo Santoro). The problem is this is all very expensive and he turns to credit-card fraud, hot checks and general con-man schemes that land him in prison. Prison, however, is where he meets the great love of his life, Phillip Morris (McGregor), a sweet, guileless Southern boy he is determined to take care of—by any means necessary.
The story follows his attempts, which means more cons, more deception and more legal trouble. Some of it is very funny. Some of it is sad. Some of it is rather pathetic. What grounds it is less the love Steven has for Phillip (since his ability to express it is mostly through conspicuous consumption that requires scams and deceptions), but Phillip’s unquestionable—and up to a point, unquestioning—love for Steven. By necessity, the story is complex, but the film is really more about the romance—and about a man trying to live as a gay man by subscribing to the stereotypes of society. In that regard, the film is more daring than any other. And it doesn’t stop there, because the film pulls its own con by subverting the oldest ploy in the gay-story handbook (you’ll have to find that out for yourself). But in the end, it’s a romance. And, yes, I do recommend it for the adults among us. Rated R for strong sexual content, profanity and mild violence.