Friday, January 28, 2011

I Love You, Phillip Morris

"The Many Lives and One Life-Term of  Steven Russell"
"Hold me, Kiss me, Make me Write Bad Checks..."

I can see why Jim Carrey wanted to do this, although the box-office returns might not be up to the block-busting weekend standards his films are used to.  The writing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (who also directed) had previously written one of the most ribald Christmas movies ever made—Bad Santa (they also wrote the first Cats & Dogs, but let's not stray there).  For anyone who doesn't like Christmas movies, Bad Santa was a tonic, a mean-spirited slash & burn of every sentiment and cliche associated with the Holiday. It's so black-hearted that, to this day, it is tough for me to watch a Christmas movie now with any sort of innocence, so caustic and toxic is that movie.  That it ended up with a jaded heart of gold somewhere amidst the bloody gristle was an astonishing accomplishment, and made me anticipate what they might foist on the innocent audience next. 

Their latest, I Love You, Phillip Morris, has the proverbial "something to offend everybody."  And it is relentless in its attempt to shock.  That the story is, essentially, true (and chronicled in the book "I Love you, Phillip Morris: A True Story of Life, Love and Prison Breaks" by Steve McVicker, about the mis-adventures of Steven Jay Russell) only proves the adage that truth is stranger than fiction.  Especially when the truth involves a lot of fiction.  The writer-director team only have to find punch-lines in the various scenes in order to push it into the comedy realm.  Absurdism rules.  Love will do that to you.

The film begins with Steve Russell (Carrey) flat-lining in a hospital bed, his life passing before his eyes, and thus, too, through the projector aperture.  His normal life turned upside-down when he learns that he's adopted, he starts living his life as a non-person, as one who doesn't exist.  But, existing with a 163 I.Q. means you have a lot of time on your hands to think things up to do.  It's a bit like the wondrous aspect of Groundhog Day—what would you do with the time you have if every day had a "Reset" button at the end?  Steve Russell has his own "Reset" button, and just one life to live, so he spends it as a completely self-absorbed unit, grabbing at the possibilities of life by any means necessary, including lying, cheating and stealing.  A complete sociopath, the only thing limiting him is what he hasn't learned to get away with yetHe starts as an ordinary family man, becoming a policeman, a church organist and living a lie.  Then a near-fatal car-crash at a crossroads snaps him into an epiphany: he's going to live the life he's always wanted out in the open, as long as how he does so, stays in the background.  He openly leads a gay lifestyle, leaving his wife and child, bankrolling everything through frauds of one type or another, until it all lands him in prison.  

Then, the real fun begins.

For the secret of Steven Russell is to find the weak links in society's infrastructure and take advantage of them.  In prison, he meets and falls in love with Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), who might uncharitably be called a 'weak link"—as he "sees the good in everybody," and for Russell, that's finding his soul-mate, easy to admire and easy to be false to.  

So much lying, deception, robbing, stealing, impersonation and chicanery goes on in this film that, finally, it is a bit numbing.   By the time Russell pulls off his biggest deception (and it's a doozy, not only in the difficulty of pulling it off, but in the harm that it can inflict), nothing surprises...or shocks.  So much time has been spent in the red-line of your sensibilities, that your meter emerges pretty much pegged.  It's going to take a lot of time looking at puppies in order to Brillo the sourness out of your skull. 

Except...I Love You, Phillip Morris is kind of sweet.  Despite being a lying sack, Steven Russell is a pretty devoted guy, going to extremes for those he loves, and...yes...even dying for them.  It's horrifying.  But, its heart is in the right place.  Ficarra/Requa can be counted on to find the silver linings in the dark clouds, as well as peeing in the punch-bowl.  Every scene has a 90° swerve on what its about—sweet to sour, darkness to light.  One of my favorite scenes has Phillip bribing a cell-neighbor to play "Chances Are" (Johnny Mathis, natch')—because the thug has the only cassette player—so that he and Steven can dance and snuggle in the cell they share.  We watch as they dance slowly in silhouette, the song warbling through the cell-block until the guards yell "lights out" and start screaming at the thug to turn off the music, which he refuses to do.  Pretty soon, there's a small riot outside the cell as the guards run in enmasse, beating and tasering the yelling music-provider,  merely heard in the background, as we focus on Steven and Phillip lost in their dance and each other—the world has gone away.

Nice.  Creepy and violently funny, but nice.  And smart.  And tells you all you need to know about Steven and Phillip's devotion.  The film-makers got their act down, but the yin and yang of extremes don't help Carrey and MacGregor, who struggle to maintain a consistent tone in their characters scene-to-scene.  At times, Carrey is so arch you wonder how anyone could be conned by this cartoon character, and MacGregor veers from teeth-jarringly sweet to pathetically whiney.  But, when the comedy turns to drama, the two seem to snap into place to make it a real scene, which tends to nullify the comedy that has gone before.  It's a tightrope-walk to be sure, but there's an awful lot of nervous-making swaying going on.

I don't say this very often, but this is one of those movies you worry about recommending because there is so much material that could give frail audiences "the vapors," but if you steel yourself—maybe get a speeding ticket on the way to the theater, pay your taxes that day—you might have a darkly good time.

I Love You, Phillip Morris is a Matinee. 

The Real Steven Russell (I think)

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