Page to Screen: I Love You Phillip Morris (2009)

I Love You Phillip Morris
based on I Love You Phillip Morris by Steve McVicker

Some stories are just so weird that they have to be true. I Love You Phillip Morris, based on an actual story, actually opens with the strains of Devotchka’s “I Cried like a Silly Boy” over a sped-up scene with beautiful sky filled with clouds, where subtitles assure you that this really happened. I first saw a trailer for this in 2009, but the film, due to its sexual content (read: because studios wet their pants in fear at queer content), wasn’t released until 2011. I tried seeing it in theaters, but the closest theater to my college apparently hates me, running it too quickly for me to catch it. (It did that for Waking Sleeping Beauty, too, which ran for a weekend. YOU MONSTERS!) But when it became available right before I left Netflix, I gave it a shot.

I Love You Phillip Morris is the incredible story of Steven Russell, the sweetest criminal you’ll ever meet. A closeted cop with a perfect family in Texas, he decides to come out of the closet after a car accident makes him reevaluate his life. Moving to Florida, Steven finds a boyfriend and lives the high life—until he realizes that, in his own words, “being gay is really expensive”. In order to foot the bill, Steven becomes a conman, but one of his more ambitious schemes lands him in prison, where he meets Phillip Morris, the love of his life, and vows that the two of them will always be together. To this end, Steven breaks out of jail, breaks in jail, and, of course, pulls off an amazing amount of cons. It’s a story so wild it just has to be true.

I happen to love whimsical lunacy, the kind that the Muppets deliver so well. I Love You Phillip Morris is in that same vein, although it’s darker. I’m not going to talk about the schemes Steven pulls off, because you just have to see them to believe them and I want you to experience the same gut punch I did. (It’s a good gut punch!) But this is a film about a self-destructive optimist, which is fascinating in itself—Steven’s options when he’s presented with any difficulty is to lie, defraud, or try to kill himself. Someone on TVTropes mentioned that this film could be a horror story from Phillip’s perspective. But it’s Steven’s attitude and cheerfulness that set the tone for this movie; his Southern accent, politeness, and pure motivation—love—all make him a likable guy, if not completely sympathetic.

A lot of this comes from Jim Carrey, an actor Roger Ebert describes as someone “who can seem both instantly lovable and always up to no good”. I have to be honest, I haven’t seen Jim Carrey in much; I think I saw The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in high school, but that was it. Steven, as a character, is a hard sell, for the reasons listed above, but Carrey sells it, and makes it seem effortless. It’s hard for someone so recognizable as Carrey to disappear into a role, but this is the closest I’ve seen him come to it, and it works very well—and if you didn’t buy Steven, you wouldn’t buy this movie. Ewan McGregor’s Phillip is sweet, kind, and gullible, but angry when deceived; this isn’t a pure comedy, since the film deals with the consequences of Steven’s actions, especially how it affects Phillip. (You will cheer towards the end. I cannot say why, but you will, and it will involve Phillip.) My favorite from the supporting cast is Leslie Mann as Debbie, Steven’s ex-wife; one scene has Steven, fleeing the law in his car, casually calling her up to tell her he’s changing his phone numbers again—her nonplussed reaction and general fondness for her ex-husband, despite his criminal ways, are fantastic. But the film is ultimately Carrey’s, and I’m glad to see him rise to the occasion.

Ultimately, it’s an odd bird of a film—too dark for most fans of whimsical fantasy, too cheerful and sweet for fans of true crime, and a film based on true events that essentially just lets Jim Carrey rip. But I’m glad it exists. Some might feel the representation of gay men is a little problematic, but the film is quite subtle about the fact that it’s set in the ‘80s and ‘90s; since I don’t know what the gay scene was like back then, I can’t comment on it. (And in any case, it’s hard to imagine Steven not going overboard with fitting the stereotypes to a tee.) In any case, there is a scene where Debbie awkwardly asks Jimmy, Steven’s boyfriend at the time, if being gay and stealing are related; his reaction says it all. It’s funny, it’s colorful, it’s sweet, and it’s dark; it’s a unique little piece that’s worth seeing.

Bottom line: A inspired piece of whimsically dark lunacy focused on a self-destructive optimist played to the hilt by Jim Carrey, I Love You Phillip Morris is a story so incredible that it has to be true. Worth a watch, but it’s a unique piece, so don’t feel bad if you don’t click with it.

I watched this film on Netflix Instant.

5 thoughts on “Page to Screen: I Love You Phillip Morris (2009)

  1. I really liked the film too but haven’t read the book. I saw another Jim Carrey movie, “Yes Man” and started the book but it wasn’t like the movie at all and I didn’t end up finishing it.

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