I Love You Phillip Morris: Gay Serio-Comedy, Starring Jim Carrey

Confounding viewers’ expectations about the genre and tone of the film they are seeing may be a good thing if the director(s) is in control.


The new Jim Carrey star vehicle, I Love You Phillip Morris, which world-premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Fest, left that event, despite its name cast (Ewan McGregor co-stars) and “shocking” subject of gay romance, without a U.S. distributor.


I caught the film at Cannes Festival last month, when it played at the prestigious sidebar, Directors Fortnight, where the reaction to the picture was decidedly mixed-to-negative. 


The team of John Requa and Glen Ficarra, who had penned the more successful, nasty black comedy “Bad Santa,” acquit themselves more honorably as writers than as directors in their feature debut, which they claim is based on a real story. “This really happened. It really did,” a title card informs us at the beginning.


Not that it matters.  The tone of this serio-comedy changes from scene to scene and often within the same scene.  Part comedy, part tragedy, part prison meller, part gay romance, but not satisfying on any of these levels, “I Love You Phillip Morris” is a confused and confusing picture with high aspirations but poor execution.


Jim Carrey plays a sociopath named Steven Russell, a married gay man who lives a double life.  After a car accident, he goes through identity crisis number one (there are several more in the scenario) and decides to come out and tell his wife.  Except that one existence based on a pack of lies is substituted with another one based on new set of lies.  Going from one extreme to the other, Russell realizes that living a good gay life ain’t cheap and there’s a problem of how to earn a living.

Russell’s adventures land him in jail, repeatedly, which is not the end of the world, particularly after he meets and falls for Phillip Morris (McGregor), a quiet, educated, sensitive if also naive gay man, who listens carefully to (and perhaps even wants to believe in) Russell’s stories, which enable Carrey to display one of his specialty acts, long, twisted monologues that involve his entire body.


The writers complicate the scenario by separating the duo through some bizarre circumstances, so that Russell would be able to use ingenious schemes (some legit and others illegit) to reunite with the love of his life Morris, such as escaping from prison in an outrageous disguise.


Times have changed and showing onscreen gay sex in a serio or wacky manner is not enough.  Nor is its sufficient to cast against type straight actor Carrey as a flamboyant gay guy, though you can’t blame the actor for wishing to stretch beyond his established screen persona as a funnyman.


European colleagues of mine at Cannes thought that deep down the movie is homophobic, a claim I didn’t share.  I just thought it’s a mediocre picture on any level, thematically and particularly technically and stylistically, an indie which goes out of its way to be lurid, hilarious, and shocking.