Review by Ryan Wilson

After languishing without a distributor for almost two years, only to get a very limited release last fall, I Love You Phillip Morris is finally available for viewing for a general audience. That the film struggled to find a release says something about the hang-ups Hollywood still has with overt homosexual content. Ironically, it’s probably savvy marketing that the film’s DVD release arrived in April, which is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Awareness Month.

The film is based on the real-life hijinks of Steven Jay Russell, the ingenious Southern conman who stole millions and escaped prison multiple times. The Phillip Morris of the title doesn’t refer to the Southern tobacco giant, but to the love of Russell’s life, whom he met during a stint in prison.

Jim Carrey stars as Russell, which is interesting casting considering his usual over-the-top acting style, some of which often borders on the homophobic. But Carrey has also proven himself to be a gifted actor as witnessed in The Truman Show, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and most notably as Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon. So, it’s particularly interesting to see which Jim Carrey appears here.

The answer: both Jims, which would be a problem if the movie didn’t keep changing its tone. At first Carrey’s take on Steven Jay Russell feels overly cartoonish, with Carry donning ridiculously floppy hair. The first third of his performance feels almost as if Carrey’s goal were to mock Russell, as he’s painted as an utterly confused closeted gay man, complete with a Christian wife who makes him thank the Lord for even the most mundane blessings. When an auto-accident brings about Russell’s epiphany, Carrey’s take on the gay lifestyle is completely stereotypical, as he struts down the sidewalk wearing loud clothing with his miniature dogs. For a second it looks almost as tasteless as a skit from Carrey’s In Living Color days.

The first of the film’s major controversies appears here. As we watch Russell flaunt his new lifestyle, Carrey’s voiceover tells us that “being gay is expensive.” The lifestyle then is used as his motive for becoming a thief, which would be almost unforgivable if it weren’t defused later in the script when Russell’s former wife reappears and bluntly asks, “Does stealing go along with being gay?” to which a character rightfully decries her ignorance.

All of this winking and meta-scripting halts, however, as soon as Russell lands in jail (after one or two not-so-subtle jokes about being gay in jail). When Russell meets Phillip Morris, played with understatement by Ewan McGregor, the film finds its heart, and Carrey settles his character down so that we can actually see Russell as a man with real yearnings and emotions. The best scenes in the film are Carrey and McGregor defining their relationship through letters they write to each other between bars, and the best moment period is when Russell is transferred out of the prison and Morris says goodbye to him from the other side of the fence.

Once their relationship is defined, the film shifts its tone again. When Russell uses his genius to spring both himself and Morris, the humor returns as he goes back to illegal behavior on the outside. He gets a job as a CFO of a major corporation and begins to steal from it. This portion of the movie feels like a Coen Brother’s comedy, as it becomes a rich satire about a gay man concealing his true self and conforming into a conservative power structure. Here Carrey is at his best, as he can smile at his bosses, while conning them on the side.

When Russell’s bubble bursts, the movie changes again and resembles Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can. We see a number of unbelievable montages in which Russell successfully breaks out of jail only to be repeatedly caught. This leads to the major event of the film, which I won’t reveal, but involves invoking AIDS in the most unethical and unbelievable way possible.

Lost in the mix is Phillip Morris. He recedes into the background so much that the focus of the film becomes less about love and more about Russell’s own pathology. This isn’t the worst detour, as the movie is more of a biography than an intricate examination of a relationship.

After watching I Love You Phillip Morris, I felt as if I’d watched four separate movies, which is ultimately a compliment. As Jim Carrey morphs into each new version of Stephen Jay Russell, we’re challenged to stay with him and to empathize. We root for him in unexpected ways, so much that we excuse his behavior. Make no mistake, there’s plenty of room for multiple offenses along the way, but in the end that’s what makes I Love You Phillip Morris so interesting. Like the man it chronicles, the film pushes all the envelopes.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College, Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2011