“I’m going to be a fag . . . a big fag,” declares Jim Carrey’s Steven Russell after a terrifically jarring car accident in John Requa and Glenn Ficarra’s I Love You Phillip Morris. The sentiment is typical of the film’s uncompromising, in-your-face approach to its protagonist’s gayness—a frankness that is both refreshing and distracting. Here is an American film starring bona fide movie stars built around a believable and earnestly rendered (to a point) gay love affair, but unlike Brokeback Mountain or Milk, gayness isn’t the subject of the movie so much as one aspect of the true-life story Requa and Ficarra are telling.
Except it’s more than that, as the filmmakers make clear from the very beginning. Though anyone who goes to see I Love You Phillip Morris will likely already be aware of Russell’s sexuality, Requa and Ficarra stage his coming out to the audience as a big reveal and a graphic gross-out joke. In moments like these, one can’t help but admire their lack of restraint and their (straight) stars’ willingness to play characters who unselfconsciously describe themselves as “fags” and “queers” (and earn the labels in their onscreen love scenes). In many ways, the movie is a breath of fresh air in a cinematic culture that persists in treating gay subjects with reticence. But in confronting its viewers so directly and so knowingly with their characters’ sexuality, Requa and Ficarra risk—in spite of themselves—making that the point of their film. Setting the gay angle aside, though, I Love You Phillip Morris is a weird, audacious, entertaining, and, at times, tedious movie that wears its Big Ideas on its sleeve, in lieu of a heart, and it deserves more consideration than the “Jim Carrey-Ewan McGregor gay movie” label that has already come to define it. Read Chris Wisniewski’s review of I Love You Phillip Morris.