The Phillip Morris addiction that gets a little out of control

Gus Van Sant was slated to direct “I Love You Phillip Morris” before he backed down or walked out, leaving the screenwriting team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa stranded in filmmaking purgatory. There they were, with a helluva story (true to life) and a goal to get the movie to Sundance within the year (2009). So they went ahead and grabbed the megaphone — or whatever it is that directors usually have in their hands — and got to work. The result is an utterly professional and meticulously crafted tale of love between two men: Jim Carrey as protagonist Steven Russell, and Ewan McGregor as the object of his passions, Phillip Morris.

“I Love You Phillip Morris” is crazy, sexy, cool — the kind of feverish, rash-inducing love story that used to wow audiences way back in the 1990s, like David Lynch’s disjointed and nonsensical “Wild at Heart” or the cheap, charming “True Romance” by Tony Scott. But these days, heterosexual love stories seem to be on permanent shipwreck mode, replaced by dire self-help vehicles preaching the straight and narrow path to the perfect relationship.

I Love You Phillip Morris
Director Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Run Time 102 minutes
Language English
Opens Now showing (March 19, 2010)

In such circumstances, what is there to do but turn to other genres, I mean genders? “Enter, the men!” as Shakespeare would have put it. Unfortunately in the case of “I Love You Phillip Morris,” everyone — as they enter, treads a bit too heavily with none of the graceful, side-stepping finesse of more practiced directors (like Van Sant).

With ham-fisted insistence, Ficarra and Requa drag everything out of the closet and lay it bare under a burning sun. Within 15 minutes the whole package is reminiscent of the gay section on a nudist beach. Lack of subtlety is often brutal: Steven doing the honors on a man on all fours, in a shoddy motel room as the cacophonous symphony of their pleasurable grunting reverberates through the thin walls, and around the theater. While that’s happening, Steven blandly informs us “Oh by the way, I’m gay,” on a voice-over narrative.

Surprisingly, Carrey doesn’t dip into that trademark reservoir of hyped-up, rancid energy and his Steven is a nice, church-going cop from Texas, who just happens to be a raunchy homosexual and a raving, delusional kleptomaniac. At first, Steven is OK with a dual identity, balancing home life with his wife Debbie (Leslie Mann), and daughter, but his inner urges (not to mention the physical ones) get the better of him. He absconds to Florida, moves in with a gay man, takes to crime and lands in prison. There he meets the love of his life: sensitive, doe-eyed Phillip.

McGregor plays Phillip with his usual passive/aggressive charm but not much more (and rightly so, for Phillip has less depth and substance than the nicotine hit from a single puff on his namesake). He’s happy enough to be swept away by Steven’s amazing libido but doesn’t understand the cycle that his boyfriend has created for himself: get released from prison on parole, commit more crimes, wind up back in the joint, break prison to reunite with Phillip and declare his undying love, get arrested again. And, in the meantime, if some bloke offers Phillip a blow job (and this happens quite often given that Phillip is such a lovely fella), who is he to refuse?

“I Love You” has none of the anguish of say, Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” — this is a gay love story spawned in an era where generous, permissive sex and sexual forgiveness are overflowing. Steven and Phillip are free men — free to indulge themselves and each other 24/7.

In fact, it could be that Steven keeps skirting the law to procure at least some element of anxiety in what is otherwise a marshland of satiation. He has that aspect of complexity going for him, but Phillip remains an aging boy-toy, hung up on nothing. Any hetero rom-com would straighten these guys out with a finger wagging to boot: The shallowness of their bond is just not a good basis for a relationship.

Ha! In the world according to Ficarra and Requa, relationships aren’t meant to work — they’re there to be consumed, squandered and burned down like trees in a forest fire. As for the consequences, Steven doesn’t mind paying up, heck it’s only other people’s money.

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