FILM You had to forgive most of the gay press for getting a little too excited over Brokeback Mountain (2005). Oh, no doubt it’s a great movie, or that the Oscar going to the fraudulent Crash (2004) said less about that film’s virtues than a skittishness that other movie stirred. But its excellence and commercial success induced widespread bouts of wishful thinking in the form of announcing new trends that never came to pass.
Five years later, there hasn’t been another mainstream American film in which a gay relationship is taken seriously and granted central importance. (You could argue for The Kids Are All Right, but that’s mostly a comedy, a big arthouse hit rather than even a modest mainstream one — and the fact remains that lesbians played by attractive actresses aren’t nearly as threatening to the sanity, morality, masculinity, and private parts of many Americans as gay men.) Nor has a single major movie star come out as gay or bi, despite the hilarity induced by excuses for such police-intervention activities as “offering a ride” to transgender sex workers at 4 a.m. or getting mugged while “walking the dog” in a well-known cruising park (also at 4 a.m.). In all these regards, television has leapt well ahead of the big screen.
Given typically imitation-crazed Hollywood’s failure to built on Brokeback‘s success — or see it as anything more than a fluke — the case of I Love You Phillip Morris is interesting for what it is and isn’t. It is, somewhat by default, the biggest onscreen gay romance (not including foreign and indie productions, which are always ahead of the curve) since that earlier film, even if it is (again) primarily a comedy, and one whose true-story basis provides the leavening element of stranger-than-fiction curiosity. (Nobody’s bothered by the gayness of movies like 2005’s Capote because we accept the otherness of real people too famous and/or peculiar to be relatable.)
What Phillip Morris is not, however, is a Hollywood or even American film, all appearances to the contrary. Its financing was primarily French — presumably because there wasn’t enough willing coin on this side of the Atlantic. Yes, not even for a comedy starring Jim Carrey. And for a while it didn’t even look like Phillip Morris would be an American release, even after it had played (and done pretty well) virtually everywhere else, from Europe to Latin America to Southeast Asia to frikkin’ Kazakhstan. The reasons (some legal) are unclear, but it seems pretty certain the aforementioned squeamishness around guys kissing and cuddling and diddling factored in — never mind that those guys are Carrey and Ewan McGregor.
Free at last, albeit without much fanfare, Phillip Morris proves to have a whole lot more in common with Steven Soderburgh’s The Informant! (2009) — true tale turned farcical caper, to diverting if mixed results — than to tragic Brokeback, even if love runs a rather sad, thwarted course here, too. We meet Steven Jay Russell as an uber-perky all-American lad — a nascent Jim Carrey — perhaps permanently warped at age eight by the discovery that he’s adopted. Nonetheless he proceeds along the road of dead-center normality, getting married (Leslie Mann manages to be both very droll and very Christian as Debbie), having kids, being a loveable Mr. Policeman, and fucking guys only on the QT.
A near-fatal accident, however, induces him to merrily chuck it all — he’s so nice the family can’t help wishing him well — and live life to the fullest by moving from Georgia to South Beach and becoming a “big fag.” He soon discovers that “being gay is really expensive,” or at least his chosen A-lister lifestyle is. Having been schooled by his adoption trauma, Steve figures if everything you think you know can so easily turn out to be a lie, why not becoming a fibbing superstar? He begins diverting funds from his corporate employer, amazed at what a chief financial officer position and a golf-playing, polo-shirt-wearing front can get away with. At least to a point — the point that commences several ensuing revolving-door years of cons, captures, prison stints, and ingenious escapes.
It is during one hoosegow stay that he meets the non-tobacco-related Phillip Morris (McGregor), a sweet Southern sissy who got there by sheer haplessness rather than criminal guile. Steven is an ardent, protective lover — if he’s also slippery as an eel, that’s at least partly because he thinks his lies protect those he loves — and Phillip is a slavishly adoring 1950s housewife who just happens to have been born with a penis.
Like The Informant!, Phillip Morris fudges the facts a bit for narrative convenience and strains at times for an antic tone that makes life itself a sort of genre parody. In his genius-IQ mind, does Russell see himself as the hero of a perfect if artificial sitcom-type world? Or does casting Carrey require the same sort of hyperreal gloss routinely applied to gimmick-driven vehicles like Yes Man (2008), Bruce Almighty (2003), and Liar Liar (1997), because he bends any context like a funhouse mirror? (Only once, in 1998’s The Truman Show, did that context meaningfully amplify his cartoonishness; and only once, in 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, has he calmed down to ordinary human proportions.) Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, making their directorial debut after team-writing a bewildering trio of mainstream comedies (2001’s Cats and Dogs, 2003’s Bad Santa, and 2005’s The Bad News Bears), approach their fascinating material with brashness and some skill, but without the control to balance its steep tonal shifts.
Surprisingly, it’s in the “love” part that they often succeed best. While their comic aspects sometimes tip into shrill, destabilizing caricature — the excess that brilliant but barely-manageable Carrey will always drift toward unless tightly leashed — this movie’s link to Brokeback is that it never makes the love between two men look inherently ridiculous, as nearly all mainstream comedies now do to get a cheap throwaway laugh or three.
Russell’s scenes with AIDS-fallen first boyfriend Jimmy (Rodrigo Santoro) are very poignant. And the many more with McGregor, who plays white-trash nelly with an uncondescending delicacy that’s both amusing and wistful, are quite lovely. There’s one scene of them chatting in their prison cell — viewed overhead in bed, Phillip’s head in the crook of Steven’s arm — that’s so affectionately intimate you can see exactly why the movie took two years to get a U.S. release. Even the prior scene of Carrey riding a different man’s ass like a bucking bronco isn’t as half so threatening as this, an utterly unguarded moment with two famous faces that both happen to be male conveying a perfectly synched love.
I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS opens Fri/3 in San Francisco.