Friday, March 11, 2011

Carrey's Triumph: I Love You Phillip Morris (2009)

Over the years, Jim Carrey has been the most exhausting of prodigious talents. From Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) to The Cable Guy (1996), Carrey could quickly wear a viewer down. With his vast collection of quick-witted jack-in-the-box character masks, he was the Tasmanian Devil of comic actors, spinning madly out of control and wiping out everything in his path. But he wasn't just some dervish comedian chewing the scenery. Carrey became the scenery. Often loudly dominating the action, he left his co-stars (especially poor Matthew Broderick in The Cable Guy) looking like they were desperately trying to escape the picture to avoid being run over.

To me, Jim Carrey always worked best served in small doses (as he was brilliantly on TV's In Living Color); or perhaps, had he been around in the thirties, he would have been perfectly electrifying featured in those review skit comedies like The Big Broadcast of 1932. But most of his feature films were either broadly aggressive burlesque comedies, or painful attempts to make him into a normal guy (The Majestic); broaden his appeal (The Truman Show), or sanctimoniously tame him (Liar Liar). Except for his perfect pairing with Jeff Daniels in the hilarious Dumb and Dumber (1994), Jim Carrey has been an overheated comedy machine rather than an actor. But in his latest film, I Love You Phillip Morris, Carrey has finally found a part that integrates with perfect precision his multiple character roles into one coherently whole person. It's Carrey's triumph. Unfortunately, due to its subject matter, distributors have done their damnedest to make sure an audience never discovers it. Don't make their mistake.

Jim Carrey as Steven Jay Russell
I Love You Phillip Morris is an uneven, wobbly romantic comedy-drama based on the story of Steven Jay Russell (Jim Carrey), who was a con artist, impostor and multiple prison escapee during the 1980s and 1990s. He was also gay. During his time in prison, he fell in love with Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a fellow inmate, who eventually became a free man. In order to be with the one he loves, Russell finds numerous ingenious means to escape imprisonment. But while his spoken impulse is romantic, its borne out of any number of multiple personalities that he possesses. The cock-eyed punchline of the picture is that Phillip Morris has no clue who the hell is in love with him.

Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor
Based on Steve McVicker's 2003 book, I Love You Phillip Morris: A True Story of Life, Love, and Prison Breaks, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, begin the story with Russell on his death bed recounting the outrageous events that shaped his life. While they can't find a consistent tone in which to delve into those events (sometimes they perfectly subvert romantic comedy norms and at other moments they invoke the brazenly assaultive The Hangover), Carrey anchors the movie though to allow Ewan McGregor the space to clearly illustrate why Russell is so mad about him. A friend of mine who also has mixed feelings about the movie described Carrey's work in it as comparable to Lily Tomlin's one-woman role with multiple parts in Jane Wagner's The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (1993). It's an apt comparison. Jim Carrey, like Tomlin's bag lady in Signs, gives Russell's multiple parts, with their distinct characteristics, a soulful continuity. Whether we see him initially as a happily married heterosexual police officer having a passionate relationship with his wife (Leslie Mann), or later, embracing his life as newly aware gay man with a comic zeal, Carrey doesn't differentiate the changes in lifestyle and sexual orientation. Even as he pulls off the most appalling scams, Carrey shows us how Russell is at the mercy of his deepest appetites which have their primal roots in his being originally abandoned by his biological mother and given up for adoption. He goes through life continually craving something where he'll never find full satisfaction.

Ewan McGregor as Phillip Morris
Ewan McGregor, with his self-deprecating shyness, is ideal casting as Phillip Morris (as he was earlier this year as the cipher ghost in Roman Polanski's terrific The Ghost Writer). McGregor plays Morris as someone equally touched as well as appalled and confused by becoming such a strongly desired object of Russell's passions. Where McGregor brings a cherubic glow to the movie, Carrey is all thin-skinned drive proving that no walls - real or imagined - will hold this man back.

After being screened at the 2009 Sundance Festival, I Love You Phillip Morris had the worst time getting an American distributor. Was it because Jim Carrey was playing a gay man? Or was it because he was playing a gay man who (being a con artist) wasn't a positive role model? (Apparently, the film also suffered some re-editing before Consolidated Pictures Group acquired the rights.) There has truly been a horrible lack of nerve in making people aware of the movie's existence. Although it currently has limited release, I Love You Phillip Morris seems to be still sneaking into towns. But maybe that's ironically fitting for Jim Carrey. For a guy who has had a career of continually kicking down front doors, maybe it takes his best work to find a way of sneaking around back.

 -- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Courrier continues his lecture series on Film Noir (Roads to Perdition) at the Revue Cinema in Toronto in March looking at the Femme Fatale. He's also facilitating a film series called Reel Politics at Ryerson University continuing on March 13th with John Boorman's Beyond Rangoon.

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