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It took nearly two absurdly long years for “I Love You Phillip Morris” to hit stateside cineplexes, and for such an uproariously funny film, with quirkiness and unsuspecting heart to boot, one question looms: Why the hell?
Could be the gay sex. (Jim Carrey shagging another man ever wildly; what would people think?) Could be, besides the intensity of that said sex, how far from politically correct this sometimes silly, sometimes serious dramedy is. Or, you know, it could just be the oddball nature of the story: Two penis-loving prison inmates, Steven Russell (Carrey) and Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), meet in the jail library and fall madly in love with each other. But before Steven could surrender to a man, he was living a lie. Well, he was living lots of lies – it’s how he lives, he’s a master con artist – but this one was a biggie: He was “straight.”
Yep, gay ol’ Steven played house with a precious daughter and an oblivious, Jesus-worshipping wife – the always priceless Leslie Mann (“Knocked Up”), who has a wonderfully gut-busting scene praying bedside for just about everything except Steven’s redemption from homosexuality. It’d do absolutely no good (not that it ever does), however, because he’s about as gay as you get: He struts, dresses and talks flamboyantly, and realizes – once he’s officially closet-free and blowing all his scam money – that “being gay is really expensive.” He says it in a voiceover like an excuse for his con games, which have him in and out of jail and put his relationship with Phillip on the line.
It all sounds too crazy to be true, but it is; there’s a real Phillip Morris and a real Steven Russell, and they were one heart. It’s a strange story – when’s the last time you heard of prisoners falling for each other (not into each other)? – that’s written and directed by suckers for the weird and wild: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who directed Billy Bob Thornton as a low-life Saint Nick in 2003’s filthy good comedy “Bad Santa,” another hellacious hoot that unjustly fought for an audience.
“I Love You Phillip Morris,” for whatever reasons (too gay, too weird, too horny), is essentially a funnier, more fucked-up “Brokeback Mountain” in lock-up, with two protagonists who are prisoners of love and, different circumstances abiding, unable to completely give into their relationship. Both films end tragically, and neither, unlike politically, era-shadowing biopic “Milk,” have any sort of “gay agenda” – “Phillip Morris” is just really gay, and completely shameless about it. “Brokeback Mountain” has nothing on it. Even the film knows that as it makes the drama’s spit-for-lube tent sex look like playtime on “Sesame Street.”
Ficarra and Requa’s breezy, amusing and amazingly touching film is a hardcore romantic-comedy without question – especially because Carrey slips into his idiosyncratic ticks (meaning he still does stupid shit) – that’s soft around the edges because of the believable love story that somehow anchors all the you-gotta-be-kidding craziness. Like a Taser, there’s something electrifying going on between McGregor and Carrey, who are sublimely layered.
As Phillip, McGregor is all sweets and swoons, a coquettish, doe-eyed gentleman who’s the kind of guy you bring home to mom, who makes breakfast in the morning and, as he is in the movie, a true romantic. (He’s so benign, in fact, that the only reason he’s in jail is because he failed to return a rental car on time. Big whoop.) Carrey, in one of his best roles – particularly nailing it when he transcends the “Oh, that’s Jim” bits – connects with McGregor as if they were more than just onscreen lovers: There’s the romantic (and hilariously ironic) slow dance amidst a loud brawl outside their cell; the ache in McGregor’s voice as he speaks to Carrey during the shocking climax; and then Carrey’s graceful expression of love, as he sweetly defends his reckless antics. It’s all the more endearing, and even heartbreaking, because for once it doesn’t feel like a lie.
‘I Love You Phillip Morris”
Opening Dec. 25
Main Art Theatre
118 N. Main, Royal Oak