I’d like to think that when I’m watching a film all I consider is the material up on the screen in front of me. But when a film comes with as much baggage as I Love You Phillip Morris, it is difficult to ignore the backstage drama and seemingly endless string of scratched and rescheduled release dates since it first premiered at Sundance in January 2009. Sure, there has been talk of bankrupt production companies and gun-shy distributors, but none of that is as interesting as speculation that the viewing public was just not ready for a hot and heavy gay love story starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor.
For all the talk of the film virtually dripping with raunchy man-love, in reality it is no more explicit than your average Apatow or Farrelly Brothers comedy. In fact, once it settles in, the romance between con-man/escape artist Steven Russell (Carrey) and his sweet but slightly dim cellmate Phillip (McGregor) is portrayed quite compassionately.
The film actually saves most of its outrageousness for Steven’s antics outside of the bedroom. Based on a true story, Russell is a brilliant and compulsive liar who faked his way into high level financial jobs and when inevitably caught, was able to break out of prison repeatedly, with each new endeavor more elaborate than the one before it (he’s currently serving a 144-year sentence he received in 1998). Filmmakers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa keep the tone light and the pace swift which is perfectly in step with the Russell’s outlandish behavior and oversized personality. Carrey is the perfect candidate to bring this type-A character to life. You could argue that his career has been built on playing characters not dissimilar to Russell. But here the material hints at the pathology laying beneath the actions, something that is rarely touched on in his other roles (In The Cable Guy and and Me, Myself and Irene? Sure; but in Yes Man and Liar Liar? Not so much). Unfortunately, McGregor doesn’t have much to do other than bat his doe-like eyes and throw the occasional fit. But he and Carrey manage to make their love feel genuine despite all the craziness surrounding it.
We can't know how much the film has been tinkered with in the almost two years since its festival premiere, but I suspect the use of a needless voice-over by Carrey was one of the studio's 'innovations.' As with nearly all voice-overs, it spells out far too explicitly what’s already right there on the screen. But, fortunately, it remains but a small misstep in an otherwise suitably outrageous and provocative comedy that deserves to find an audience after all its time spent on the shelf.