Close your eyes, but not really, and imagine an independent film about a man falling in love. All you know is that the tagline is “Based on a True Story. No, Really It is.” What do you see? Do you see clouds and hear whimsical music broken only by a narration of someone on their deathbed? Now go a little further into this film you’re imagining and reveal a comic twist to your character in the narration. Maybe it’s something like the good Christian cop is gay. Freeze-frame on that. Have you seen this before? You probably have. It’s not original.
I Love You Phillip Morris is the story of a con-artist who falls in love with a good man in prison. Jim Carrey plays Steven Jay Russell, a man so trapped in a fake life as an average guy that it takes a car accident to snap him out of it. On the gurney he vows to live his life truthfully as a gay man, even if that “truth” involves lying to everyone as a con man. Steven leaves his daughter and wife, played by the likable Leslie Mann, to move to Miami, where we find him already in love with Jimmy (Rodrigo Santoro) and living up the American gay male fantasy. Steven is a man-about-town and everyone loves him to know him.
This popularity follows him to prison, where he gets whatever he wants and his sentence is more of a vacation than anything else. This is accented by the fact that the “worst” thing that happens is that you have to suck a man’s dick. The movie makes a point to say that this isn’t as much a punishment for Steven as it is a perk. It should be stated here that this is the tone of the movie. It’s light and breezy, but punctuated with jokes that aren’t so much blue as they are intended to shock with bluntness. The problem is that these moments aren’t actually as shocking as they try to be. A stronger sense of humor breaks through the film in a handful of moments, but most of the time, it relies on someone shouting, “Suck my dick!” out of nowhere to get a laugh. Now, I know I used that example before, but that apparent laziness is actually taken from the film. You will hear “Suck my dick” as a punch-line several times before it’s over, and no, it doesn’t become a fun running joke. It’s just a boring device.
What brings the movie back, however, is Steven’s next obsession: Phillip Morris. It’s a refreshing role that is extremely well played by Ewan McGregor. He finds honesty in this character where others may have approached it as more of a caricature. This is where the film really begins and the remarkable cons that Steven pulls off start to take shape.
The temptation to makes things outlandish is ultimately the film’s most significant fault. Directed by first-timers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the film doesn’t entirely know what it wants to be. In the commentary, which I’ll touch on later, they express their interest in films that change their tones throughout. That’s an admirable quality, but they simply don’t execute it as well as they may have intended. The tagline, which I only bring up again because it’s also used as a title within the movie itself, stresses that what you’re about to see is so crazy that you won’t believe it, but you should because it’s true. A movie following that statement would be more profound if it was shot straight, allowing the absurdity to speak for itself. The Coen brothers’ 1996 classic Fargo is famously not based on a true story, yet it is treated as such and has a certain weight to it that this film could have used. I Love You Phillip Morris doesn’t trust itself and tries to be clever in ways which unfortunately do the film a disservice. The featured tagline is warranted; the facts of this relationship do verge on the unbelievable. Unfortunately, for all the outlandish facts it presents, the movie’s fiction undermines the whole affair. It’s just an average film about an extraordinary story. There was a time when this film’s approach would have been fresh and exciting, but that time was the late ‘90s.
The movie takes on a saturated look which serves it well, and it looks amazing on Blu-ray. However, in the spirit of “you can’t win,” if there are ever movies which you don’t have to see in the highest possible quality, I Love You Phillip Morris is one of them. That said, since the gaffer is on the commentary, out of respect I will repeat that the film does look very good.
There are an appropriate amount of special features for a film like this. They include a feature-length commentary with both directors and a handful of behind-the-camera folk, a making of, deleted scenes, and more trailers than you’d ever want to sit through (three). The commentary is fine but at times a little self-congratulatory. They actually all come off as nice people, so maybe they’re allowed to like their own movie. What I do like is that they freely give credit to Jim Carrey and the rest of the cast for everything they brought to the table, including improvised lines as well as overall approaches to several scenes. In fact, at times you get the feeling that they didn’t direct Jim Carrey as much as they allowed him to call the shots. But who can blame them? They’re relatively new to this and he’s Jim Carrey.
The making-of is more of a home-movie, but in a bad way. Some featurettes that are done in this style provide a unique insight into the filmmaking process, allowing the viewer to feel like a fly on the wall. This one is just random clips of footage interspersed amongst canned interviews with the actors and directors. The deleted scenes also verge on the unnecessary and are mostly just extended clips that don’t provide any new revelations about the story. That’s often the problem with deleted scenes in general, so it’s hard to fault them for that. If anything, it’s a backwards approach to show the audience how good the editing was to begin with.
It’s understandable that the budget for special features may be limited for an independent film like this, but in an ideal Blu-ray world, what’s missing is any sort of documentary feature to cover the real-life story of these two men who lived through a truly unbelievable romance.