Why would a very entertaining comedy starring Jim Carrey in full rubberface mode be held up for two years between its Sundance debut and its general American release? It seems inexplicable but for one pesky fact: Carrey’s character is, as he puts it, “gay, gay, gay, gay.”
Really, the blame for I Love You Phillip Morris ’ under-the-radar fate in this country (it was a hit in Europe) shouldn’t be laid on our country’s supposed homophobia just yet, but on gutless distributors apprehensive about same. Still, writer-directors Glenn Ficara and John Requa (Bad Santa) shouldn’t be surprised. Unlike most mainstream films with out characters played by straight actors, I Love You Phillip Morris is in-your-face gay. It’ll see your Brokeback Mountain ’s saliva-lube moment and raise you Ewan McGregor spitting rather than swallowing. The homosexuality is pervasive, casual and ultimately beside the point.
The main interest is the criminal shenanigans of Carrey’s antihero, real-life con man and serial prison escapee Steven Jay Russell. Initially a closeted, god-fearing family man, Russell has an epiphany after a severe auto accident and is reborn a flaming ‘mo in Florida, “living high off the gay hog”—a high-end lifestyle that, alas, requires some light credit-card fraud that soon catches up with him. In prison, he falls for the titular Morris (McGregor), a meek bottom who inspires him to expand on his innate grifting talent. And so begins a cycle of fraudulent luxury, more prison time and wacky escapes that are allegedly totally or at least mostly true.
Tempting as it is to read Phillip Morris as a salvo against American repression, it’s more accurately described as a gay Catch Me If You Can (or a Catch Me If You Can without a million humorless false endings; it even parodies annoying third-act tonal shifts, with a jaw-droppingly ballsy finale that’s entirely earned). The tone is barn-door broad, much like Alexander Payne circa Election. But it’s as arch and controlled as Carrey, whose elastic Jerry Lewis routine is even more engaging when he’s working with competent material.
The central joke in Phillip Morris is that it’s a superior mainstream entertainment that happens to be wildly out—a gag that may have worked too well.