It took quite a long time for I Love You Phillip Morris to make it to UK cinemas, partly because it’s a bit of a tough sell. It’s a film that moves from broad comedy to deeply felt drama, doesn’t shy away from the gay side of its story, and makes a hero out of a man who in most cases would be seen as the bad guy. However despite all these difficulties, the movie succeeds admirably.
Based on a true story, Jim Carrey plays Steven Russell, a married father who gets into a car accident, which causes him to rethink his life and come out as gay. He moves to Miami and starts living the homo high life, however that costs money, and so Steven starts breaking the law and ends up in jail. There he meets Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor) and falls deeply in love. Despite a few problems in prison, they eventually get out and set up a life together, but Steven just can’t keep away from crime.
When he lands up back in jail, Steven puts in place a series of elaborate escapes so he can get back to Phillip, and even when his lover ends up back behind bars, Steven won’t stop trying to see him, even if that means breaking out of his own prison and finding a way to get into Phillip’s.
It’s almost a miracle that I Love Phillip Morris can negotiate going from anarchic escape plans and nutty frauds, to emotional drama and social comment, but it does. It’s a film that while deliberately made not to be a ‘gay film’, almost becomes one of the best gay films around, simply because the sexuality is so embedded into the main characters, rather than being central to it and the movie. The movie never shies away from the fact it’s a love story between two men, but is actually more powerful by not treating it as anything except the truth of these people’s lives.
It’s also rather amazing that while the film constantly feels like it must be stretching the truth for comedy effect, nearly all of the most bizarre or seemingly over the top things did actually happen, as Russell was a truly ingenious man, who pulled off some truly audacious scams and escapes. In fact it’s kind of interesting that his most audacious plan, which made him famous and which the movie uses to structure the film around (in a clever kind of bluff), is actually just a tiny part of a story that gets ever more incredible as it goes on.
The film is helped immensely by the performances, with Carrey one of the few people who could pull off both the pratfalls and the pathos, while Ewan McGregor puts in one of his best performances in years as the titular Morris. They make a great team and a remarkably convincing couple, with none of the winking to the audience that often happens when straight actors play gay.
The DVD includes a decent 15-minute ‘making of…’ documentary, in which the cast and crew talk about the film. Perhaps most interesting is the discussion of why the likes of McGregor and Carrey were drawn to the film, particularly as it was coming from untried, first-time directors (although they had previously written Bad Santa). There are also some interviews with the cast and crew, and a trailer.
Overall Verdict: A film that skilfully mixes heartfelt drama and romance with knockabout comedy. I Love You Phillip Morris is a surprising treat.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac