I Love You Phillip Morris is, simply put, the best comedy film of 2010. The film retells the real-life story of con artist, impostor, and prison escapee Steven Russell (Jim Carrey), and his multiple attempts to escape prison in order to be reunited with the love of his life, Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). With exemplary directing, writing, and acting, the film is a crowning acting accomplishment for goofball Carrey, who brings heart and sincerity to his performance.
A hybrid of different genres, I Love You Phillip Morris is an all-around great American story. The cleverly constructed screenplay, narrated by Russell on his deathbed, alternates between present, future, and past, occasionally even flashing back to Russell’s childhood. The plot never misses a beat—filled with twists and turns, the audience is kept on the edge of its seats all the way to the end.
Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the writers behind the critically panned and extremely vulgar Bad Santa, masterfully co-write and co-direct this film. It is lushly photographed and layered with a plethora of visual motifs. I Love You Phillip Morris is everything that their previous effort wasn’t: subtle and refined, touching without being sappy, and a rousing story of love that will make you laugh, cry, and think. It’s popcorn entertainment at its best, meaning it’s also smart and clever. It teaches without being moralizing, and suggests feelings without dictating them.
In I Love You Phillip Morris, Jim Carrey realizes a Chaplinesque character in a tour-de-force performance. Carrey’s Steven Russell is both endearing and maddening, neurotic and juvenile, flamboyant in his mannerisms yet subdued in his displays of emotion. He will lie and steal to get what he wants—his goal is so sympathetic that watching him striving to be reunited with the love of his life, it is hard to reproach him for his many flaws. Carrey’s Russell is a child in an arrested stage of development—a character that Carrey has played numerous times, but also one he truly hones in this latest effort.
Carrey is a master at discovering what’s humane in the characters he portrays. He makes you love his characters in spite, or rather because, of their flaws. Many of Carrey’s onscreen characters—Lloyd from Dumb and Dumber, Stanley in The Mask, and the eponymous hero of The Truman Show—are outcasts struggling under tight social constraints. Each of these characters seeks self-fulfillment in their lives as a way to fit in the world again. They are also, consciously or unconsciously, desperate for those around them to witness and answer their need for social transcendence. Since Carrey’s maniacal acting style is in itself a cry for attention, it is fitting that the actor has played such parallel characters.
Carrey can engulf any actor who shares the screen with him, though McGregor more than holds his own in the film. The characteristics of Carrey’s acting gain new meaning in I Love You Phillip Morris by highlighting Russell’s existential loneliness, and makes his need to love and be loved all the more desperate and aching. Like a child who does the wrong things to get what he wants, Steven Russell goes to great lengths to prove his love to Morris, but only succeeds in alienating his lover more. The resulting tale is one of unattainable love, not because the lovers are gay, but rather because Morris is, at the end of the day, a pathological liar.
For some time, American movie-goers were deprived of Carrey’s performance. Though Phillip Morris was shown across Europe in early 2010, it had enormous difficulty finding an American distributor (most likely due to a “graphic” gay sex scene that makes Brokeback Mountain look G-rated) and was not released in the United States until Dec. 3, 2010, when Roadside Attractions picked up the film. The film was co-financed by Luc Besson’s Paris-based EuropaCorp studio label, and partly due to its European sensibility, it has unsurprisingly performed far better across the pond than in America.
Carrey is long overdue for some Oscar love, and after having his work shunned in recent years, this film should have won him at least an Academy Award nomination. And Ewan McGregor offers an equally compelling performance. Ficarra and Requa’s screenplay is one of the best of the year, and though it wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award, it did net its co-directors a Writers’ Guild Award nomination. The team of Ficarra and Requa is one to watch, and I eagerly await their next contribution. This film is a must-see, and one of the best films of 2009 that no one saw in America in 2010.