Tuesday, April 5, 2011

I Love You Phillip Morris (2009)

One of the aspects that I greatly admire about Jim Carrey is his diversity. There are few actors who genuinely take risks with their roles. Jack Nicholson's work in the 1970s is a prime example. Often those artistic risks are defined by whether they are successes or failures, but that misses the point. The act of taking a risk is an essential part of the creative process. A lot of people who would identify themselves as creative are extremely afraid of taking a risk, as taking one can end a career as much as totally elevate one. Artists who take risks will always get love here, and what do we talk about when we talk about love? One of Jim Carrey's latest films, I Love You Phillip Morris (2009).

Jim Carrey is Steven Russell, an adopted son, who grows into a law-enforcement officer with a wife (Leslie Mann) and a daughter. After a near-fatal car accident, Steven decides to stop living that life: he only became a law-enforcement officer to learn the identity of his biological mother and he has also decided to be openly gay. "Being gay is expensive," Russell quips in voiceover, so in order to maintain his opulent lifestyle, Carrey's character begins a life of fraud. This behavior lands Russell in prison where he meets the love of his life, Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). After his release from prison, Russell frees his lover by fraudulent means. Russell graduates to becoming the CFO of a Fortune 500 company, and he and Phillip are able to live a very comfortable wealthy life. Of course, Russell earned his position and his money the old-fashioned way: he cheated and stole most of it.

From the book by Steven McVicker, directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra pen the most literate script. As a testament also as to how charismatic Carrey is in his performance, I had to recall some of my old Literary Theory courses (in reflection, however) in regards to first-person narration and reliability and credibility. It is very easy to forget who is telling this story in voice-over: a criminal with an exceptional specialty in fraud. I was instantly charmed by not only this character but by Carrey: he could have sold me sand at the beach. In a brilliant sequence, Requa and Ficarra show Carrey’s character, as a CFO, tell a very simple joke to his secretary, who immediately turns to her assistant and tells the same joke and begins to flub it. In a subsequent montage sequence, Carrey hears his joke from myriad different lips, and each time the joke is more distorted and corrupted (in escalating ridiculous fashion). The real joke is that it shows how Carrey’s Russell was able to perpetuate his fraud on almost everyone: people hear what they want to hear, see what they want to see, and believe their own versions. Carrey’s Russell became what people wanted to see and none was the wiser.

I Love You Phillip Morris is a dark comedy in American Independent Cinema Fashion: the film is character-driven and quirky, and the set-piece stands out. A lot of the film takes place in prison where there are some fantastic sequences. Russell and Morris’s first meeting, in the law library, is completely endearing. Carrey and McGregor have an immediate chemistry. Russell eventually becomes Morris’s cellmate; and in a hilarious sequence, Morris gets his neighbor to play a song so he and Russell can slow dance in their cell. The camera stays on Carrey and McGregor while they embrace. The audio cues in the background, behind the music, are of the neighbor in the cell in a violent confrontation with the guards: here are the two lovers, oblivious and blissful, among their dangerous and absurd circumstances: an almost representative scene for the whole film.

Requa and Ficarra deserve praise, also, for giving Carrey’s character some humanity. Despite the fact that when you think about it, Carrey’s Russell is a fairly despicable character, but like almost everyone, he is able to engender sympathy or empathy. In a totally unexpected and short sequence, Russell is shown at the bedside of his lover who is in his final days, dying of AIDS. I can only imagine what it is like to watch someone that you love literally waste away. It is a tender sequence, and one could imagine that this is the kind of hurt that never goes away. In an earlier sequence when Russell confronts his biological mother, the awkwardness and dysfunction become focal: there is no real way to prepare to meet an estranged parent, and Russell performs as best as he can. How do you tell someone who you do not know that you’re my mother and I want to get to know you? Requa and Ficarra and Carrey’s rendition is interesting. When Carrey’s Russell goes back to his car after the confrontation, he steals the “Welcome” mat, because, as Russell puts it, “this is obviously not true.”

Jim Carrey delivers another fantastic performance. His comedic timing and his spontaneity are at its peak. Like many of his previous roles, as Andy Kaufman or as the Cable Guy, for example, he really embraces his character and gives an intense, in-depth performance which appears totally natural. It is difficult to watch his performance and not consider him an artist. Ewan McGregor deserves a lot of praise, as well. Like Marisa Tomei’s performance in The Wrestler, when the central performance is so strong and focal, there is a tendency to either forget, belittle, or neglect the other performers who are often giving equally strong performances. McGregor is simultaneously charming, endearing, and mysterious: one has to remember that Phillip Morris is ultimately Steven Russell’s one weakness and his undoing as a criminal mastermind. McGregor imbues that quality, and he is very lovable. I Love You Phillip Morris is totally unpredictable and satisfying, both in its execution and its expectations.

I was able to view I Love You Phillip Morris as an On Demand Rental via the Zune Video application via the XBOX Live Marketplace.

1 comment:

Mr.LargePackage said...

Super review, Hans. I've never sold sand to someone at the beach, but I've sold a block of ice to an Eskimo. Twice. And that's large and in charge.