I know most of you haven’t seen The Extra Man, an offbeat comedy from 2010 that featured Kevin Kline alongside Paul Dano. The reason I bring that film up here is that the majority of critics seized on Kline’s wacky performance in their limited praise for the film and all but ignored Dano – or else labeled him useless. When I viewed the film, though, I was taken mostly by Dano’s measured absurdity. It’s fun to be broad and silly, but there’s something more enticing about the balancing act between solemn and cartoonish.
Similarly, Jim Carrey was certainly enjoyable as gay con-artist Steven Russell – he gets the best of both worlds, able to flail around and mug for the camera to his heart’s content while still being able to call it an artistic outing simply because of the frankness with which the main characters’ sexuality is discussed. I, however, found myself more impressed with the sadly under-used Ewan McGregor as the titular Phillip Morris. McGregor actually acted like a different character (Carrey simply added a southern drawl) and evinced a range of emotions – all while providing the most subtly hilarious lines in the film. My favorite moment in the film is when Morris casually gestures with a garden hose while discussing the juicy gossip he heard “in the Ricky Martin ‘People’ in the bathroom.” It makes more sense in context, believe me.
Altogether, I Love You, Phillip Morris is a good movie that fails to reach beyond that. The film attempts to reach toward two disparate goals at one time – the slapstick humor that coincides with the casting of Jim Carrey in the lead role, and the honest romance that sparks between Russell and Morris which drives Carrey’s actions throughout the film. It’s a testament to the power of the dramatic core of the film that it remains clear despite the fact that there is never any real reason to believe that Russell would hold this undying love for Morris. So while the movie is about the two men and their quest to be happy and together for all time, it is more about Russell’s money-making con games. But even that is a cheat, as evidenced by a moment where Russell lies his way into a position as a CEO for a large corporation. When pressed to present his work, the movie slips into a silent montage where our hero inexplicably wows his co-workers and retains his position without having to explain how he did it.
The movie does that a lot – it skips along to where it’s going, unconcerned with the trail it’s leaving behind. The movie opens with Russell as a stand-up guy, a law enforcement officer who hides his homosexuality and has a seemingly happy marriage with a nice Christian woman (Leslie Mann). When he decides to try to find his birth mother, the certainly traumatic moment is played for a laugh and quickly forgotten. When Russell embraces his homosexuality, it is again played for a quick laugh and tossed aside. And though Mann’s character shows up in the movie several times throughout the run-time, she remains totally one-dimensional (spouting ‘God bless you’ to everyone like a robot) and altogether unnecessary. Does her character achieve any goal in the film once she and her husband have separated?
Despite these many glaring missteps, though, the movie remains largely enjoyable. There are several times when the filmmakers included a sly misdirection that really works in the film’s favor (perhaps a stylistic homage to Russell’s own skills as a master of fraud?). Early in the film, we follow Russell from behind as he walks through the hallways of the state penitentiary he’s been banished to once his multitudinous crimes have been found out. The other prisoners hurl insults and trash at him as he passes, but when he finally reaches his cell it turns out that the person we have been following is another inmate entirely. Russell is sitting in the cell already, a gigantic grin on his face, ready to introduce the newbie to the world of prison. This is but one of several similar instances where the audience’s expectations are turned on their head. The revelation of Russell’s sexuality is done in a similar way, to suddenly turn the viewer’s expectations upside down. “Did I forget to mention that I’m gay?” Carrey asks in narration; you can hear the self-satisfied smile.
So yes, there are big problems with the movie but there are also big successes. At one point late in the game, Russell admits his scheming ways to his lover. He tells Morris that “underneath all the lies, there was something true.” That line seems to encapsulate the entire feeling of the film for me. Underneath all of the forced antics (which are, admittedly, occasionally quite funny), there is something true. There remains those small moments when the love story takes center stage, and those moments are something dazzling ( http://bit.ly/fQW70b ). The title of the movie doesn’t come in the middle of a joke. Although the movie could just as easily have been titled “King Con”, after one of Russell’s nicknames, or something equally absurd, instead it is much more impactful. It is not Carrey’s delivery of the line which makes it a stand-out. It is the scene itself, the circumstances which lead to that bit of dialogue.
I Love You, Phillip Morris is a pleasant and gleeful film, one that does not let its viewers get bogged down with melancholy or anger even when things seem most dire. But that same praise can be turned toward criticism: when the movie should have been able to let the emotional center take center-stage, it never really does. Many of the sweetest scenes are undercut by hammy comedy (e.g. the dance scene), leaving an otherwise good movie feeling strangely hollow.