Thursday, June 21, 2012

Near, Far, Wherever You Are

For all the strides we've made toward LGBT equality as a society, it's prudent to remember that we've quite a long way to go before achieving anything resembling equitable acceptance of non-heteronormative relationships. Case in point, the strikingly inoffensive I Love You Phillip Morris, which  despite starring one of the most popular comedic actors in film history took nearly two years to find a distributer willing to front it to cinemas in the United States after its Sundance debut in January 2009, and even then only after some desperate measures of self-censorship. In marked contrast with the British ad campaign for the film I witnessed while residing in London (which included public buses plastered back-to-front with the title poster and a robust web placement rate), stateside promotion for the film was virtually nonexistent, a few perfunctory art festival hooks notwithstanding. Consequently, when ILYPM finally did reach those select few theaters , it received little if any attention from the American public, a public that has time and again flocked to dozens of inferior Jim Carrey vehicles but who were unwilling to give this particular gem – the finest acting performance of his career, or so many have deemed it – the time of day.
I'll let my readers draw the appropriate conclusions.

That said, I don't want to give the impression that ILYPM is the best Carrey film – an honor unlikely ever to be stripped from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to my quite-spotted mind anyway – nor am I even willing to argue that it represents his best performance – that I would almost certainly grant to his turn in the near modern classic The Truman Show. Nor, it must also be conceded, is LYPM anywhere near the funniest film of Carrey's career, and to that I will add no specific speculation except that, to my shameful admission, I got more genuine laughs out of the insipid Fun with Dick and Jane than I did hence. But of all Carrey's comedies, romantic or otherwise, ILYPM represents some of the most interesting work Carrey has ever displayed on screen, and it's refreshing after so many years of his increasingly over-the-top antics to reminded that he achieved his fame for good reasons, foremost among them his mastery of malleable expression and his impeccable comedic timing.

Much credit for ILYPM's charm must be given to directorial and screenwriting team Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who display in their debut mainstream feature a more thorough understanding of character comedy than most industry players do after decades. While ILYPM is certainly a rougher effort than their more successful followup Crazy, Stupid, Love (which, incidentally, reveals what happened to the missing comma in I Love You Phillip Morris), it is a quirky, touching take on the genre in its own right, playing up to the strengths of script with a give-and-take approach to narrative that wobbles between quick-cut perfection and downright cheapness with its flippant "just kidding" reveals from an obviously unreliable narrator. When this works, it works very well, and it ties the framing of the film to the narrator Steven Russell's (Carrey) voice insightfully while setting up a number of his best lines for maximum punch. When this fails, it's usually because of inconsistent application, particularly in the final act of the film when the narrative itself runs out of steam and devolves into a bit of a gag-driven farce (not unlike its successor Crazy, Stupid, Love in that regard). In other respects the film's visuals leave something to be desired; the over-saturated color palette just feels like a Sundance standby at this point and serves to distract more than any particular purpose, and the inconsistent attempts to ape Wes Anderson angles feel forced and out of place with the film's whimsical sense of time and space.

"This really happened. It really did," opens the film, well aware of our skepticism at Hollywood narratives "based on true stories," but as far as my light research has been able to confirm, in this case it actually did, more or less. Steven Jay Russell, at the film's outset, recounts the story of his life from his deathbed, and it's as bizarre a tale of star-crossed lovers as ever found root in real events. Having learned of his adoption in a tellingly misplaced moment of familial awkwardness, a young Steven vows to become "the best man, no, the best person I could be," and instantly we jump to twenty-odd years later where he has become a Cleaver-esque nuclear father, a friendly-neighborhood police officer, and an enthusiastic church accompanist. After making contact with his biological mother through illicit use of his police access and finding, to his devastation, that he was and still remains an unwanted middle child, Steven experiences the first of several epiphanies and relocates his family from Virginia Beach to Floria, whereupon he reveals to us in one of the film's most effective moments of "surprise" narration that he is in fact gay and has begun seeing men by night while pretending to be working long hours at a Cisco food distribution center. On the way home from one such encounter he becomes the victim of a car accident and undergoes a second epiphany, deciding to out himself to his wife and the world and, in an insightful revelation of his latent lack of responsibility even as a concept, determines on a whim to leave his family for the carefree life of a South Beach single. A few top-shelf martinis and Burberry bags later he realizes, however, that "being gay is expensive" and launches a career in con-artistry that will shape his persona – and the narrative force – throughout the rest of the film.

Ultimately his tricks lead up to his arrest for insurance fraud and a would-be brief prison sentence, wherein he meets the titular Phillip Morris (Ewan MacGregor) and the film finds its true impetus. It's love at first sight as the unbelievably trusting Morris (in prison for, of all things, failing to return a rental car) falls for Steven's smooth advances, and for motives initially unclear Steven not only allows himself to fall equally head over heels for Phillip but dedicates his every effort from thereon out to providing for Phillip in every way possible. This initially means mostly smuggling goods to Phillip's cell across the yard and protecting him from the more menacing aspects of of prison life, but culminates in Steven's escape from prison and his impersonation of a lawyer to secure Phillip's release before the end of his term. Having freed his lover and vowed to give him the best of life's offerings, Steven soon finds himself returning to his con-man ways, and so begins a cycle of re-imprisonment and Houdini-like escapades of escape that would be the stuff of the most ridiculous comic contrivance if it weren't for them being a very real matter of public record, and along the way we see a romance a portrayal of love as idyllically pure as it is harmful for both lovers involved, along with a character study of a man so defined by his obsession that he sacrifices his very identity in pursuit of that ill-defined ideal.

And that's only a broad sketch of the thing. If ILYPM sounds convoluted, it is, at times to its detriment as a coherent narrative but more often to its own unique advantage as the strangest kind of offbeat biopic ever to find a niche in the rom-com genre. Though rarely ever outright funny, the film exudes such charm in even the most detestable moments of its narrator's actions that one can't help but find him endearing, to say nothing of the heartbreakingly honest performance by MacGregor as the sweetest, most pathetic southern ingenue to fall for the wiles of a gentleman caller since Laura Wingfield. Phillip's extended reaction shot to Steven's final and greatest deception manages to strike a double note as simultaneously the most moving and ridiculous moment of the entire film, exemplifying the oddball sentiment of the piece as punctuated by the last reprise of the fanciful score.

In the end, it's hard to know exactly what to make of ILYPM, which fails both as a structured narrative thanks to its madcap third act and as a comedy thanks to its lack of genuinely funny moments – all are amusing and most are delightful, but almost none are likely to induce actual laughter. Still, the whole thing is just so damn likable that it's hard not to give it a recommendation. Carrey and MacGregor are both in top form here, which will be enough of an incentive for some of you, all else disregarded. I've already made more than enough mention of the charm on display in ILYPM's every character, its every absurd moment, and I suppose if I can find no better words to describe the underlying quality of the film, I'd do best to say it's delightful and leave it at that.

Grade: B+


  1. I'll have to check this out.

    Also, I love your tags.

  2. A great number of them are inspired or influenced by TVTropes, I admit, but I do enjoy sneaking my own little side commentary in the tag cloud.