I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS
“This really happened,” a title announces over the opening shot of I Love You Phillip Morris. “It really did.” For their directing debut, screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa—best known for their yuletide rant Bad Santa (2003)—have found a tale that more than justifies the added avowal. Adapted from a book by former Houston Press crime reporter Steve McVicker, Phillip Morris tells the true story of Steven Jay Russell, a devoutly Christian produce salesman and sometime police officer who left his wife and daughter in Norfolk, Virginia, and embarked on a life of crime, eventually landing in a Texas prison. Between 1992 and 1998 Russell escaped from four different correctional facilities, walking out the door after, for instance, faking a call from a judge to lower his bail or dying his prison uniform to look like surgical scrubs. In his time on the lam this master of the long con passed himself off as a high-level corporate professional and tended to passionate romantic relationships with two men, the second of whom was a petty thief named Phillip Morris.
Unfortunately, as the opening title might suggest, the filmmakers have punted on the hard cinematic work of making the incredible seem credible; instead they’ve turned Russell’s story into a broad farce with one wocka-wocka gag after another. So many of these involve Russell’s homosexuality that one might mistake them for a perspective of sorts—an implication that Russell’s double life as a gay man drove his chameleonic criminal existence. But that might be giving the movie a little too much credit. If you’ve seen Bad Santa, you know that Ficarra and Requa trade in a particularly mean, snickering variety of black humor, feeding their characters an endless diet of shit sandwiches. They take the same tone here, and though the movie was featured last month in Chicago’s GLBTQ film festival, its attitude toward gay sex seems to be one of thinly veiled revulsion.
Their spin on the material is a real shame because, as David Mamet proved in House of Games (1987) and Anthony Minghella in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), the minds of con men and impostors are fascinating terrain. In McVicker’s book, which was informed (and perhaps, as the author admits, misinformed) by lengthy prison visits with its incarcerated subject, Russell is a puzzle box, marked early in life by the knowledge that he was adopted (in a transaction of questionable legality) and later by the discovery that he was bisexual. His adoptive family’s produce distribution business taught him how to manipulate people, his youthful adventures cruising for gay sex in the conservative south in the 80s acquainted him with the underworld, and his grounding in police work (mostly as a traffic cop) allowed him to develop a formidable skill at cracking security systems. He lived big and gambled big, and he was so charming that, in the thick of his illegal exploits, even his god-fearing ex-wife remained friends with him.
Jim Carrey took a substantial pay cut to appear in the $15 million production, and when it screened at Cannes in May 2009 he compared it to The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. His commitment to the movie is laudable—but his awkward performance helps sink it. Russell was a confidence man, but onscreen Carrey has always been an overconfidence man, and as directors Ficarra and Requa are either less interested or less successful than Peter Weir or Michel Gondry in containing Carrey’s mania. The lanky, rubber-faced actor is an odd physical choice to play Russell—a short, pudgy man—and his love scenes with Ewan McGregor lack any appreciable chemistry. Ultimately, though, Carrey is just a victim of the clumsy script; he works so hard to sell its tepid jokes that you can never quite buy him as someone as smooth and cagey as Russell must have been.
As comedy writers, Ficarra and Requa understand that the key to any joke is simplification. But there’s nothing simple about the mind of a confidence man, and in the process of converting Russell’s story into a laugh machine, the filmmakers emphatically reduce him to his sexual orientation. In one of the earliest scenes, reminiscent of a famous Peanuts cartoon, Russell is a little boy lying in a field with his friends and gazing at cloud shapes in the sky. When he tells his friends that one cloud is shaped like a penis, they all laugh at him, but then the filmmakers cut to a shot of the cloud, which so resembles an erect penis that it might have been inked on the door of a bathroom stall. The boner returns as an image later in the film when Russell, escaped from prison and passing himself off as a health-care professional, leaves a doodled cartoon of a little penis man on a financial spreadsheet to be found by a suspicious coworker. I Love You Phillip Morris marvels at what Russell did for love, but the romance is so flatly rendered that he more often seems to be doing it just for cock.
Ficarra and Requa might even have pulled that off if their attitude toward sex—straight or gay—weren’t so inherently nasty. A typical gag shows Russell and Morris (played by McGregor) sweetly bonding at a movie night while, one row ahead of them, a grizzled inmate masturbates furiously, cursing the actress onscreen. A later sight gag begins with a dreamy long shot of a deserted sailboat in the darkness, then Morris, who’s been fellating Russell on deck, stands and spits over the starboard bow. There’s a sequence in which Morris takes it upon himself to show a new inmate around the prison and coaches him on how to handle the other prisoners, each instruction ending with a variation on the line, “Or, you can suck his dick. Your choice.” When they reach the newcomer’s cell, the young man asks Russell, “So, do I need to suck your dick?” Russell replies: “That’d be great.” The gag has a classic setup-and-payoff structure, but the laugh is undercut by the ugly fact that there’s no choice; after all, “this really happened,” and what we’re watching is a culture of prostitution and rape.
Thanks to its bluntly rendered gay sex, I Love You Phillip Morris has had to claw its way onto American screens. Though it was well received at Sundance as well as Cannes, distributors shied away; apparently the big problem was a sex scene about ten minutes into the movie when Russell, cheating on his wife, hammers away at a burly man from behind, hooting and hollering with his arms in the air, his partner bellowing, “I want you to come in my ass!” The movie’s quality notwithstanding, you have to be cheered by the fact that it’s finally opening here in Chicago, days after the state legislature voted to approve same-sex civil unions—and during the holiday movie season, no less. It’s too bad that, when you tear off the wrapping paper and open the box that was Steven Jay Russell, there’s nothing but a dick inside.