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Non-Review Review: I Love You, Phillip Morris

I Love You, Phillip Morris has ‘niche’ just oozing from every pore. Although it’s obviously comedic, there’s more than a hint of Carrey’s dramatic aspirations in the air. Cynical film viewers will suggest that this movie, with two recognisable actors in a gay romance, has missed Oscar season by a few months. It’s based on a true story, which rarely bodes well for a comedy. It’s a movie that’s it’s very easy to by smug and cynical about. Which is a shame, because it’s really a very charming and effective romantic comedy drama.

Carrey on...

The movie is based on the true story of notorious conman Steve Russell, a man with effortless charm, unbeatable optimism and seemingly inexhaustable energy. From my knowledge of the facts that inspired the movie, most of the events are portrayed extremely close to the truth – there are obviously some stylised touches and I imagine that the exact mannerisms and dialogue have been changed, but the trajectory of Russell’s life is remarkably faithful to the story which inspired the movie.

And it’s damn funny. Maybe a lot of the humour comes from knowing that something this absurd actually happened. Even the ingenius escape attempts glimpsed in montage for actually occurred – it doesn’t matter that your brain is wondering how the hell they actually could have happened (I can picture my parents shaking their heads and simply refusing to believe that any of these schemes could work). It’s a full and varied life that is captured on film, and the movie is incredibly wry – though there are more than a few laugh out loud moments. Indeed, at one point I laughed until it hurt (“my word is my bond!”).

Arguably the movie’s biggest flaw, however, is that it is too much like its lead character. Steve Russell isn’t sure who he is (the opening scene has his parents confessing they bought him in a hospital carpark), so he compensates by trying to be everything. He’s a lawyer, a prisoner, a CFO, a socialite and much more between – the audience has to try to piece together how much of him actually exists, and what parts (if any) are real or true. The movie seems to have a similar dilemma. It’s always comedic and it’s always dramatic, but the ratio tends to fluctuate rather drastically. Sometimes this whiplash helps land a particularly powerful zinger or underscore an effective moment, but there are times when the audience feels a little adrift.

In fairness, these movies are few and far between. And that’s what Jim Carrey is there to help with. Anytime the movie runs at risk of wandering off on a tangent or meandering, he finds a way to throw it over his shoulder and carry it back to where it needs to be.

Carrey’s performance is a happy medium. Or as close to happy as a medium can get. His trademark flappable antics are kept to a minimum – occasionally we’ll hear an accent or see him flail as escorted by police officers (though he does apologise) – but his comedic charm and delivery really tie together the character. I didn’t know it was possible to make a white collar criminal likeable in this recession era, but Carrey succeeds. There are also moments that do call for that intensely human vulnerability he does so well, and Russell is a perfect vehicle for Carrey’s range.

That said, there’s nothing here that will particularly impress either those looking for a follow-up to his superb dramatic turns in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or The Truman Show, or those looking for the laugh-a-minute over-the-topness of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective or Liar Liar. Here he falls somewhere in the middle. It’s to his credit that he can find a way to balance those two competing facets of his ability. I dare say he succeeds. Carrey is the single greatest reason to see the film, if only for both the best dramatic and comedic turns he has given in years.

The film is light, but thoughtful. It’s fun and breezy, but can also be sweet and poignent. The relationship between Steve and the eponymous Phillip Morris feels real and genuine – even though we know that (like his marriage before it) it is built upon a bed of lies. Ewan McGregor is better than he’s been in a while as the object of Steve’s affections. The film never really focuses on Phillip enough to allow him to become a fully-formed character – instead we see him as a wonderfully niave (and, the film suggests, showing him wolfing down chocolates despite his diabetes, somewhat reckless) kid caught up in true love that is far more complex than either partner wants to believe it is.

The movie is solidly entertaining. It’s well put together and features a talented cast. I would argue that Carrey is one of the finest actors of his generation. While this might not exactly compare with The Truman Show or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this is a film which stands proud on his filmography. I get the sense the movie won’t be seen nearly as widely as it deserves to be.

4 Responses

  1. Carrey got robbed for Eternal Sunshine.

    • Amen on that. I actually didn’t think Winslet was so great. In fairness, I also thought she was better in Revolutionary Road than The Reader, so what do I know?

  2. This movie looked so funny, but now I’m hearing its on both ends. So now, I’m just going to have to think about seeing this.

    • I thought it was great, and it is definitely more of a comedy than a drama, but it is more dramatic than most of Carrey’s comedies. I think that sentence made sense in my head.

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