Wednesday, August 29, 2012

I Love You Phillip Morris

The first memory I have of I Love You Phillip Morris was from about four years ago, when I noticed it as an announced project on Ewan McGregor's IMDb page.  Not knowing anything about it, I assumed it would be something along the lines of Thank You For Smoking.  I was wrong, if only because there is an extra "L" in this title's "Phillip;" for the record, though, I still think you could make a pretty scathing comedy about someone in love with Philip Morris products.  Being a fan of McGregor and a supporter of Jim Carrey's more artistic efforts, I looked forward to seeing I Love You Phillip Morris.  Despite getting good reviews at Sundance in 2009 (January '09, specifically), it was not released in American theaters until December of 2010, almost two years later.  What could possibly explain such a long delay for a picture that, if critics were to be believed, did not require an overhaul?
Ah.  Gay.  Gotcha.  It probably didn't help that Carrey had A Christmas Carol about to come out and Mr. Popper's Penguins in the works around the same time, either.
Isn't it funny when actors take chances instead of conforming to their brand?

I Love You Phillip Morris is the true story of Steven Jay Russell (Jim Carrey).  When the movie begins, Steven is a married police officer with a young daughter.  It's pretty obvious that he's not as happy with his life as his wife is; Steven's facial expressions during sex reminded me of Halloween in elementary school, when someone handed you a bowl of cold noodles in the dark and told you they were intestines --- ewww!  Pretty soon, Steven has come to terms with his unhappiness and decides to stop living a lie.  He swaps hetero- for homo- with his acknowledged sexuality and starts a new life.  Good for him, right?  Everybody deserves to have some joy in their life.
An example of "gay" and "happy" being synonyms
Steven's change isn't just acknowledging his sexuality, though.  This was a life change for him; he's not just the same guy who is now openly attracted to men, he's now really, really flamboyantly gay.
Note: personal style does not denote sexuality
That's not particularly noteworthy.  What is, though, is Steven's perception of what he needs to be a happy gay man.  He moves to Miami and finds himself a sexy boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro), and everything seems to be working out just fine --- but the life Steven wants is beyond what his finances can support.  So, he puts his years of experience of living with lies to good use and becomes a con man.  While he's a pretty good criminal, he has to commit a lot of fraud to support his lifestyle and eventually gets caught.  However, in this story, that's where things hit their stride.  In jail, Steven meets the love of his life, Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), and they fall in love.  And that's great.  But when Steven can't stop lying and conning, he starts to risk losing Phillip.  Being a fairly unconventional thinker, though, Steven always has a plan to win Phillip back.
Phillip's reaction to most of those plans

The acting is what makes I Love You Phillip Morris engaging.  When you think about it, the story balances on how likable Jim Carrey can make a man who lies to everyone, whenever he can; it's kind of like Liar, Liar, only with repercussions.  It doesn't help that this is a movie about gay men that are not cross-dressers, played by famous Hollywood actors; that's not a concept that Hollywood seems to have accepted as a remote possibility.  The script isn't exactly razor sharp, either.  To put it another way, if you don't like gay jokes, awkwardness, and innuendo, there might not be much here for you.
And if you're homophobic, you'll want to take notes.  You know, on what you don't like.
If, however, the idea of Jim Carrey taking his over the top skills in another direction intrigues you, you'll be pleasantly surprised.  Carrey is actually quite good.  Naturally, his gift for physical comedy provides some of the easiest and most frequent chuckles, but his timing on deadpan jokes is much improved, too.  What impressed me the most about the acting is how good Carrey and Ewan McGregor were as a couple.
It's adorable when couples match
McGregor plays a much smaller role than his titular status indicates, but he was also good.  I think he was at his best in quieter moments; his dramatic chops were well-used as the frequently heartbroken and disappointed Phillip and his best jokes were understated.  Rodrigo Santoro wasn't funny, but he was better than his role of (essentially) Handsome Man Number 1 required.  Leslie Mann was fine as Steven's ex-wife; she had some good lines, but she was also the character that asked the obligatory ignorant gay questions. 
Example: "If gay means happy, then why do you cry so much?"

I Love You Phillip Morris is the directorial debut of co-writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.  I have trouble assessing the direction in comedies sometimes, because it is so easy (and usually rewarding) for a director to go for a joke instead of the story.  That trouble is amplified when the directors are also the writers.  Still, I think Ficarra and Requa did a pretty good job with Phillip Morris.  They obviously got along with the principal actors well and were smart enough to balance abrasive sexual jokes with some solid emotional content.
My favorite raunchy joke: "Golf?  Why don't you just eat pussy?"
What limits the movie is that the script isn't that great.  Yes, it is balanced (for a comedy), but there were an awful lot of jokes that were more shocking than funny.  I like dick jokes as much as the next guy, but I'm also over the age of thirteen and can handle more complex material.  Ficarra and Requa stuck with what got them the gig --- writing Bad Santa and the Bad News Bears remake --- but they need a little bit more to make the transition from "decently amusing" to "genuinely funny."
Fancy underoos are a start

I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting with I Love You Phillip Morris.  Once I figured out that it wasn't about cigarettes, I mean.  It was pleasantly raunchy in a way that I haven't seen in mainstream movies in a while.  It had a protagonist with realistic and understandable obstacles to overcome.  The supporting cast was good.  I would even call it "cute" if there were fewer audible moments of fellatio.  I guess I was hoping for something that was trying to be funny more than shocking.  I know, I know...the shocking parts are the funny parts.  They just weren't funny enough for me.

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