Sundance Review: I Love You Phillip Morris

I Love You Phillip Morris seems to take perverse pleasure in confounding its audience. Is it a comedy? A drama? A romance? The story of a man in the midst of a perpetual personality crisis? A con-man caper flick? The tale of a professional prison escape artist? At some point it’s all of those things, but never all of those things at once.

Jim Carrey plays Steven Russell, a man who lives a secret life as a homosexual, while coming home to a loving wife. After a car accident, he decides he’s had it with the lies and even as they’re dragging him from the wreckage to loading him into the ambulance he happily proclaims “they’re gonna call me a faggot!” Once he’s out of the hospital, Steven ditches his wife and starts to gay it up. One problem: Living a properly flamboyant gay lifestyle is expensive. Soon Steven returns to the lies, only this time he’s using them to earn a living.

Steven’s lies land him in jail, over and over and over again. It’s there that he meets and falls in love with Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a quiet, sensitive gay man who believes anything Steven tells him. When circumstances separate them, Steven uses his powers of deception to get them back together. Sometimes that means posing as a lawyer, sometimes it means bribing other inmates for a hooker outfit to use in one of his many prison escapes.

Carrey works surprisingly well as Steven, though perhaps it’s only because Steven’s entire life is one big performance. Jim’s playing a guy playing a guy, and when he can’t help but fall into one of those wacky, unrealistic facial expressions it works as a reminder that everything we see of Steven is merely some sort of artificially created character. His relationship with Ewan works as well, though much of their life together seems to exist primarily to get guy on guy laughs.

During the Q&A after out screening, the films directors John Requa and Glen Ficarra spent time insisting that their goal was simply to portray a love story, not a gay love story. I don’t buy it. The movie spends far too much time trading in wacky gay sex gags to believe that was really their intention. Phillip Morris revels in Jim’s various gay liaisons with a wide variety of different on screen male partners, and most of its big laugh-moments come from adventures in wacky gay sex. Jim Carrey just gave it to that guy in the ass! Hilarious.

Even with a star-studded cast, it’s no surprise to hear that as I write this, Phillip Morris hasn’t found a distributor. Like Steven, Phillip Morris seems to have a tough time figuring out who or what it is, and for my part I don’t know who or what its audience is either. Don’t get me wrong, it’s entertaining, and the idea that such an outlandish story might actually be based in reality makes it incredibly fascinating. But Phillip Morris doesn’t seem to know where it’s going or why it’s going there, and the result is an unusual movie that’s not particularly satisfying.