18 June 2010

‘I Love You, Phillip Morris’

Watching the offbeat romantic comedy I Love You, Phillip Morris, a num­ber of intriguing questions arise: What are two of Hollywood's big­gest stars (Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor) doing in this picture? What is it doing playing in an airplane on the way from Paris to Texas? And how did it get made in the first place? Among the questions that do not arise are: Why is this picture having trouble finding a distributor in the U.S.? To put it mildly, Phillip Morris is anything but mild.

The movie was made in 2009, but had to be reedited before Con­sol­i­dated Pictures Group agreed to release it. Then came a case of cold feet, and then another. At last report, I Love You, Phillip Morris won't reach American theaters until October of this year, though it's come and gone already in Europe. (Indeed, by the time news of the dis­tri­bu­tion di­lem­mas piqued my interest, it was too late already for me to catch the movie in Parisian cinemas.)

What's the problem with the movie? It's gayer than anything I've seen in a major motion picture on the big screen. But apparently, nobody noticed how gay it was until the picture was completed.

Carrey plays Steven Russell, a smooth-talking con man who gleefully slips in and out of careers for which he's unqualified, and who just as gleefully slips in and out of prison when he's caught. One way and another, he's lived a lie from the day he was born: he isn't really the son of his adoptive parents, his stepbrother snidely informs him early on; neither is he really the happily hetero, churchgoing husband and father he pretends to be. As for his dedication to law and order, which one might presume from his first career as a police officer, he quickly demon­strates that it, too, is a lie.

Liar, Liar: Carrey as Steven Russell

Ostensibly, this is all a true story, based on Steven Russell's memoir, but can one really trust this guy's word?

Though Steven is capable of forming durable relationships — notably with his ex-wife, pious, clueless and loyal Debbie (Leslie Mann, in a hilarious, winning performance) and his daughter, and with his first male lover (Rodrigo Santoro) — it seems that nobody is able to hold him, until the day he meets Phillip (McGregor) in the prison library. By the end of the movie, we've come to understand that, as Steven says, when you take away all the lies, all that's left is the man who loves Phillip Morris.

Man-on-Mann Love

That's a powerful message, and there's plenty of interesting com­men­tary on gay psychology (identity, self-esteem, trust between part­ners in the age of AIDS) and Texas' penal system, which is mocked viciously. Yet at heart, this is a quirky, indie-cinema that should have been made on a shoestring, starring a couple of reliable indie-gay actors and maybe a couple of sitcom stars looking for big-screen cre­den­tials. That movie would have played at gay and lesbian film festivals, with a New York run at the Quad in the weeks leading up to Pride.

Instead, we get this fascinating curiosity, in which two straight super­stars simulate very specific sex acts with other men. Whenever they're not doing it, they're talking about it, leading Carrey to use vocab­u­lary that Canadians aren't really supposed to know, much less pro­nounce. (Whether they admit it or not, this is doubtless the source of the dis­trib­u­tor's unease.)

McGregor has been reliably gay-friendly throughout his career (witness his performance in Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine), and Carrey does like to flex his acting muscles (witness his performance in Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Thanks to them, this movie surely will garner more widespread attention than it otherwise would have done. But it's almost guaranteed to shock, surprise, maybe mislead (pick your verb) these actors' mainstream fans, who may have come to the theater in search of Ace Ventura and Obi Wan.

Forceful acting: McGregor

As we approach Pride Day, we observe that this movie might have been released last year, in time for the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. For me as for many of my friends, this is a time to reflect on how far we've come, and Phillip Morris is an intriguing measure. Yep, there are gay guys portrayed as lying criminals — not in itself an indicator of much progress, since that's the image of us we've seen so often at the movies (when we were permitted to see ourselves at all). Yet these same gay guys are also portrayed as real people, human and fallible, whose love uplifts them and contrasts with their outlaw behavior. Hey, we sometimes see movies about straights in similar straits. Robin and Marian. Bonnie and Clyde. Sid and Nancy. Et cetera.

For my part, I'm inclined to approve of a gay couple represented not as saintly victims or as crusading heroes — even while their love is rep­re­sented as redemptive and wholly admirable. Anyway, directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra have created an amusing, original com­e­dy that's worth seeing. With luck, some American distributor will give you the chance, one of these days.

Meeting cute: The library scene


Amy B said...

apparently, nobody noticed how gay it was until the picture was completed.

'Cause you gays are always sneaking around trying to take over the world and stuff.

Can't wait to see this; great review.

Anonymous said...

I realize that most of this post is about the movie, and you may not wish to engage in a discussion of popular perceptions of gays and lesbians, and their status in American society. I think of the many gays and lesbians I have known and respected over the years, and I wish that matters were not so troubled . . . but why are they so troubled?

A number of years ago, I read an article by Andrew Sullivan that I've been thinking about ever since. Sullivan, as I'm sure you know, is a widely respected gay commentator who supports many, but not all, aspects of what is loosely called the "gay rights political agenda." Some people are quite furious with him for his lack of orthodoxy on the subject. In his article, Sullivan described a meeting of politically active lesbians at which they unveiled a picture of Andrew Sullivan, framed in a sniper's crosshairs. That expressed how they felt about someone who "broke ranks" with them on issues they considered important. Sullivan remarked that he thought it unlikely that members of the religious right -- you know, the fanatical, zealous right-wing nuts who watch the 700 Club and support Pat Buchanan -- would do such a thing at one of their gatherings. Their attitude toward Sullivan would probably be expressed along the lines of "You are a profoundly misguided young man . . ." but they would not suggest or advocate violence against him on the grounds of his social and political views.

It is, of couse, silly to read too much into a single anecdote, but you could find many similar examples of gay militant extremism if so inclined. And such anecdotes make people wonder whether stereotypes about some (but not all) gays and lesbians being maladjusted, emotionally disturbed, etc., do not contain a grain of truth. Who are the real bloodthirsty fanatics here?

I am quite curious as to what your thoughts are about Andrew Sullivan's thoughtful and informed perspective.

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

Rick -- Wow. I can't fathom Andrew Sullivan's winding up in anybody's crosshairs; honestly, I can't imagine anybody's getting excited about him at all, pro or con. His name seldom comes up in conversation in my vicinity, though I suppose he's sometimes invoked to support opinions already formed and defended by the speaker.

Beyond that, as I observed last year at this time, when you shared with us that memorable sample of "gay militant extremist" writing, I've never met anybody who resembles these troubling characters. Maybe I'm just sheltered, but clearly I'm the wrong guy to ask for insights.

Why, though, would anybody (other than Mr. Sullivan, who has a right to be concerned; and law enforcement officers, who have a duty to protect him -- yikes) pay much attention to people such as those you describe? And who'd have thought they'd come up in a discussion of a Jim Carrey movie?

Anonymous said...

I thought the post was about both the movie, and about how popular images of gays have evolved in the years since Stonewall.

-- Rick

Girl From Texas said...

What IS being released in DFW for Pride weekend is " 8 The Mormon Proposition"

Girl From Texas said...

And the elephant in the room is the allusion in the title to the American tobacco room by the same name. What do you think this adds to the meaning of the film?

William V. Madison said...

Apparently the character's name is NOT an allusion to the tobacco company but the real name of Steven Russell's lover. (The "Philip" in the tobacco company's name is spelled with only one L, by the way.)

Perhaps out of fear of legal action, there's no direct reference (so far as I noticed, in the admittedly far from ideal viewing conditions to which I subjected the picture)to the possibility that any other person or group might share Phillip's name. In the library scene, he seems momentarily embarrassed as he introduces himself to Steven, but that's as far as it goes.

So what does use of the name add to the film? I dunno. Verisimilitude, maybe.

Lincoln Madison said...

Well, "October of this year" is now December, and I just saw a "sneak preview," with the main U.S. theatrical release tomorrow. It already played not only in western Europe, but in Russia (in more than 50 cities), Lithuania, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, Brazil, Croatia, Korea, Hong Kong, and Mexico, to name a few. It was even on TV in Argentina, ten months ago.

The film is, to borrow a line of dialogue, "Gay, gay, gay, gay, gay." It is also screamingly funny. Jim Carrey does a few of his obligatory pratfalls, but they're over and done with by the time the main story gets underway. Carrey and Ewan McGregor are in fine form, balancing the comedy with moments of genuine emotion.

I did wonder about the name — when I first heard it, I was expecting perhaps a sequel to Thank You for Smoking — especially given that they made not even a glancing reference to the corporation now known as Altria. I would have either tossed in at least a throwaway line ("I know — but I don't even smoke!" or "But my friends call me Virginia Slim" or something) or else change the character's name. Jeffrey Morris or Phillip Sanders or even Maury Phillips would've done just as well.

The website for the film is: PhillipMorrisMovie.net, or, for the French version: ILoveYouPhillipMorris-LeFilm.com