I Love You Phillip Morris opens Saturday in select theaters (see times below)
Just because a true story is stranger than fiction does not mean it doesn’t have to be believable. And, just because a story’s protagonist is a member of a historically marginalized group doesn’t mean he can’t be repellant.
These are only two of the problems plaguing I Love You Phillip Morris, which debuted at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival but struggled afterward to find a U.S. distributor and secure a release date. The comedy-drama is based on real-life con man Steven Russell (Jim Carrey), a churchgoing Virginia Beach cop who, after a near-fatal car crash, leaves his wife and moves to Miami in order to live life as his true self, a gay man.
The expensive lifestyle he adopts, however, soon lands him in the penitentiary, where he meets Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), an inmate with a Southern accent and a courtly disposition. The two arrange to become cellmates and soon fall in love, an arrangement that goes awry once Phillip is released from prison. So, Steven hatches a series of increasingly elaborate escapes in order to reunite with his true love.
Phillip Morris generally succeeds as a satirical farce of middle-class mores; the explicit sex scenes nearly take care of that by themselves. However, the film breaks the mooring of its verisimilitude when it ventures into romantic and dramatic waters. Carrey gives a no-holds-barred performance, but the chemistry between he and McGregor is nil. It becomes difficult to pull for these star-crossed lovers when Steven, the central figure, is so loathsome.
First-time directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who also co-wrote the repugnant, mystifyingly overvalued Bad Santa, too frequently lean on homosexuality as a comic crutch, a device that belies the film’s purportedly progressive aim (no queer-in-prison trope goes unturned). Veered haphazardly from drama back to very black comedy, the finale to I Love You Phillip Morris only confirms what the audience has already figured out: The joke’s on us.