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I Love You Phillip Morris
Jim Carrey's Portrayal of a Gay Character.
I Love You Phillip Morris
Jim Carrey Stars in "I Love You Phillip Morris."
OPENING WEEKEND: $22,000,000
DOMESTIC TOTAL: $70,000,000
  This Film is NOT a Future Release.
  The Following Preview has been Archived.

December 15th, 2008: The movie is a true story of Steven Russell (Carrey), a married father whose exploits landed him in the Texas criminal justice system. He fell madly in love with his cellmate (Ewan McGregor), who eventually was set free, which led Russell to escape from Texas prisons four times.

What to Expect: Once upon a time, there was a con man named Stephen Jay Russell. If you didn't know it was true, you'd never believe the story of his life. He was a con man of amazing genius, with an IQ of nearly 170, who was repeatedly arrested and made numerous escapes from various prisons by the creative use of aliases, almost 14 of them. This is a man who once escaped from prison, then impersonated a judge and had his own bond reduced to the point where he could pay it and set himself free. He once escaped by methodically stealing green markers from the prison schoolroom until he had enough to dye his white prison to resemble doctor's scrubs, and walked out the door as one of them. Another escape found him managing to fake having AIDS and escaping during medical transport, yet another had him impersonating an FBI agent and reporting himself no longer wanted.

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This is a man screenwriters only wish they'd invented.

So who the heck is Phillip Morris? He was Russell's cellmate, with whom he fell completely, desperately in love. Having already left behind a wife and children when he came out of the closet, Russell's devotion to Morris motivated many of his escapes as he tried to reunite with his lover. The real Russell's still in jail...his escapades got him a 144-year jail sentence. Morris is free, though. And single. Is he waiting for Russell? Not really, he says, although he also said that if Russell were to get out...legally or otherwise...he'd want to be with him.

What the heck kind of movie is this, anyway? Crime drama? Thriller? Prison movie? Gay romance? Comedy? The answer seems to be "all of the above." The most telling piece of evidence is probably the director/writers, who are best known for having given us that category-defying film "Bad Santa." One would expect them to take this material and turn it into a black comedy, and that's borne up by the tone of the trailer.

But let's talk for a moment about gay films in Hollywood. For once, this film's gay content is not being downplayed by the studio. Remember all those trailers for "Brokeback Mountain" that made veiled references to "secrets we couldn't tell" and "lifelong bonds" while showing Heath and Jake in artful silhouette, eschewing any images of contact between them while making sure to include them macking on their screen wives? Yeah, there's no such artifice here. Russell, as played by Jim Carrey, is shown in all his gay glory, at poolside and at the gym with his first lover, played by Hottie McHottenstein Rodrigo Santoro, only slightly less gay here than he was in "300." Russell and Morris (a boyish-looking and blonde Ewan McGregor) cavort in their cell and giggle while staring dreamily into each other's eyes.

Is the "stealth" gay movie a thing of the past? Can movies featuring gay characters finally advertise themselves as such without fearing that no one will come? Studios used to use the old bait-and-switch technique, in which a gay film cloaks itself in the guise of an ordinary drama, but when the audiences show up, surprise! Guys kissing. It's so obvious as to hardly need stating that "Brokeback" changed the cinema landscape vis a vis gay characters and stories about them. The increased visibility of gays, especially on TV, removes sexual orientation as an element of shock value.

Until, that is, you cast Jim Carrey. And you can't tell me that having Jim Carrey, in all his rubber-faced glory, play a gay man, doesn't smack just a little of pandering to the giggling undercurrents of "oh my god it's Ace Ventura kissing a DUDE." Carrey is not a man possessed of much subtlety, and one can just imagine him relishing the chance to swish and flame and play the devoted, romantically obsessed lover. Can he play this man as anything but a caricature? And is this even a movie that would require him to do otherwise?

I recall reading once that the social progress of any minority group can be traced in very distinct stages by how they're portrayed in movies. Take black characters as an example. The first stage is caricature. This gives us Mammy in "Gone With the Wind" and a thousand other household servants and pickaninnies. The second stage, once prejudice has become no longer socially acceptable, is saintliness, when no one in the movies wants to portray blacks negatively for fear of being called racist, so we get Sidney Poitier in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and...any other movie he was ever in. The third and final stage is Realism, in which black characters are allowed to have the full range of good and bad characteristics as real people have.

Gay characters have gone through the same thing. From the caricature sissy-boys of black and white films to the saintly dying-of-AIDS characters of "Longtime Companion" and "Philadelphia," we're slowly transitioning into realism, although some saintliness still lingers. Are we approaching a time when gay people in films are allowed to just be people, and not Gay People? As I write this, Sean Penn has been nominated for a Golden Globe award for "Milk," for which he is almost surely to receive an Oscar nomination as well. A whiff of saintliness there, as Harvey Milk is considered a trailblazer of the gay rights' movement and was martyred for the cause. Now we have this film, featuring Russell, a bona fide gay con man. You don't get much more varied than that.

I'm encouraged to be seeing a wider variety of movies featuring gay characters. We should be able to have dramas, comedies, thrillers, action films, and of course musicals with gay people in them.

I'm not encouraged, on the other hand, by Carrey in this film. In my preview of "Yes Man" I discussed the whiff of desperation that's clinging to Carrey's career of late. That film might as well have had a neon sign hanging over it that said "LOOK! A Jim Carrey film, just like you remember!" This one might as well have a neon sign hanging over it reading "LOOK! Jim Carrey playing a gay guy!" Next thing you know he'll be singing in the film revival of "South Pacific" and then playing a mentally handicapped paraplegic with an inspiring dream to become a country singer. So, it's no longer a question of if Carrey is on a crusade to recapture his box-office status, but of how far he'll go to achieve it.

Is "Phillip Morris" a vehicle to capture the nation's attention? It could be. Or it could be off-putting and incomprehensible. The trailer that's been released so far has puzzling shifts in tone, and features Carrey being, well...over the top. It's left a lot of moviewatchers scratching their heads at what, exactly, we can expect from this film. After "Morris," Carrey's next film is Robert Zemeckis' animated "Christmas Carol" in which he seems to be playing every character, all of which makes me think that Zemeckis learned nothing from the horror that was "The Polar Express," and he's just signed on to play Robert Ripley, the founder of Ripley's Believe it or Not, a role that seems right up his street. I have a sneaking suspicion that he took the role in "I Love You Phillip Morris" in some parts just to shock people that he'd taken it. Increasingly, he's making choices as if he has something to prove, which isn't necessarily the best headspace from which to approach artistic choices.

So what about McGregor? Oddly, it isn't the slightest bit surprising, to me anyway, that he'd take this role. He probably couldn't wait. There are few actors less self-conscious or more willing to take risky material, even sexually forthright. He's played gay before, in "Velvet Goldmine" and others, and has probably gotten his kit off onscreen more than any other male actor of recent memory. He's a rare commodity...a fearless performer. My only concern is that his sincerity may clash with Carrey's hamminess. Will their undying love be believable in the slightest?

And will it even be played to be believable by the directors? Or will it be played campy, to make us smirk but not get emotionally invested? The movie I keep thinking of, oddly enough, is "Raising Arizona," which features another mismatched couple with instant and desperate love who engage in morally questionable acts because of it. The Coens (another directing duo, as is helming this film) played that relationship for snark too, and therein lies the genius of the film. Perhaps my sensitivity to homophobia makes me less receptive to a gay relationship being played for snark, even if it's the most effective way to tell the story.

I'm really of two minds about this film. On the one hand, I'm excited that it's so up-front about the gay romance angle, and Russell is just a fascinating character I'm eager to see a film about. On the other hand, I'm so confused about the tone and direction of the film that I just don't know if the directors want me to laugh or cry.

In Conclusion: I'm dubious. Carrey notwithstanding, this isn't a film to appeal to his usual fanbase, most of whom would stay away from any gay film in droves. People intrigued by the premise might be put off by him, leading to an interesting dichotomy...the sorts of filmgoers who appreciate gay films, dark comedies and such aren't likely to be Carrey fans, and Carrey fans aren't likely to go in for him making out with Ewan McGregor. It's a tough genre even without the gay-prison-romance angle. I smell "cult film" all over this one.

Similar Titles: Ace Ventura, Bound, Bad Santa
December 3rd, 2010 (limited)

Roadside Attractions

Glenn Ficarra, John Requa

Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro

Total: 43 vote(s).

Comedy, Drama, Romance

Click here to view site

Rated R for sexual content including strong dialogue, and language.

100 min





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