Friday, January 14, 2011

"I Love You, Phillip Morris" Review

The battle to bring "I Love You, Phillip Morris" to the screen was a curious one. Originally set to bow in early 2010, the film was shelved for six months by its distributers. A vague legal battle postponed the second scheduled release last summer, and the film finally limped to my local art house in December. There was widespread speculation that one of the reasons for its initial delay was—how should I put this—its gayness.

Honestly, that was one of the primary reasons I was interested in seeing this docudrama, which casts Ewan McGregor and Jim Carrey as penal lovers (pardon my French). Distinctly different actors, the idea of the pair performing together proved an interesting proposition, especially if the tone required Carrey to display a modicum of gravity. Unfortunately, a modicum is about all we get.

Instead, Carrey and the film deliver a caricatural portrayal of homosexuality in a bizarre dramatic farce that struggles with an unfocused story and amorphous style. "Phillip Morris" leans toward comedy, and does feature some very funny moments, but the drama sticks out like a sore thumb. McGregor is naturally empathetic as the title character, but Carrey is the protagonist. Enter Steven Russell, a "Catch Me if You Can" esque con man, whose corporate hijinks, subsequent jailing, and repeated successful prison breaks provide the film's narrative backbone.

Like many biopics, "Phillip Morris" struggles structurally. Unlike Aaron Sorkin's brilliant "Social Network" screenplay, "Morris" is more or less a laundry list of notable events rather than a properly paced story. A cloying title card during the film's opening reads: "This really happened. It really did," and I'm forced to assume its proud adherence to actual events is in large part the problem. The first act, ostensibly about Russell's life as a straight man, has nothing to do with the love story to come. That Russell lived a lie for decades prior is interesting biographically, but completely inconsequential to the story at hand.

It's no coincidence then that things pick up when Russell lands himself in jail. It's the real start of the movie. Regrettably however, the problems with the first act are echoed throughout, and by the 90-minute mark it's still not clear where "Phillip Morris" will end. I'm not usually one to play the rigid structuralist, but in this case, there's no denying its importance. "I Love You Phillip Morris" is a plodding, messy film.

But it isn't a complete loss, either. The core relationship between Carrey and McGregor is as interesting as I had hoped. Though Carrey's performance matches the atonality of the film—bridging mortal revelations with his signature dopey shtick—he does manage to sell the relationship dynamic during its surprisingly brief duration onscreen. McGregor is terrific as always, bringing vibrant life to a character that might otherwise have been a blank slate. It's just a shame that his performance is wasted on as mediocre a film as "I Love You, Phillip Morris."

Uneven, but well acted and occasionally amusing, the directorial debut of the screenwriting duo behind "Bad Santa" shows promise but lacks polish. In hindsight, the content probably wasn't the primary concern in its distributers delaying its release—after all, it boils its gayness down to comfortable stereotypes. More likely, the advertising battle was fought over how to sell the story rather than how to sell the characters' lifestyle."This really happened," killed the movie. It really did.


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