After being delayed for nearly a year thanks to distributor woes and legal wrangling, the directorial debut of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (the writers behind “Bad Santa” and directors of the upcoming “Crazy Stupid Love“) finally arrives on North American shores. And though the film is not as outrageous as it premise teases, “I Love You Phillip Morris” is mostly a pleasantly diverting comedy that goes very far south in its go-for-broke final act.
If you haven’t heard, “I Love You Phillip Morris” finds Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor playing gay lovers! OMG! We had a worry before sitting down to watch this that the film would do nothing but ruminate on, and wring laughs from, the leads playing gay, but while there are some early scenes which venture into that territory, by and large, Ficarra and Requa realize this true-life story is weird and funny enough in its situations that the sexual orientation of the two players involved is only one of the many juicy facets of the tale.
When we first meet Steven Russell (Jim Carrey), he’s a kid finding cloud formations of cocks in the sky. He grows up to be, seemingly, a well-adjusted member of society, working as a police officer, married to his devoutly Christian wife Debbie (Leslie Mann) and taking care of his children. But after getting high and nearly dying following a clandestine homosexual romp, Steven decides he can no longer live a lie, and comes flaming out of the closet. It isn’t long before he has Jimmy (Rodrigo Santoro), a young boytoy on his arm, and he’s living it up in the most cliché way possible getting tiny dogs, expensive clothes, jewelry and vacationing in exotic locales. Thankfully this is about the only time the film indulges in gay cliché and at any rate, the lifestyle is costing Steven a pretty penny and soon he’s committing larceny to keep the gravy train rolling. But he’s found out, arrested, tossed in jail and it’s there he meets the love of his life, the titular Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor).
Phillip is sweet, and kind of dumb too, but for Steven, from minute one, he’s the person he will become forever devoted to, and that loyalty will lead him to commit some truly outrageous cons. Without giving too much away, Steven will do anything — anything — to be with Phillip and make him want for nothing. While with Jimmy, his acts were mere credit card and identity fraud, for Phillip, Steven’s criminal enterprises become more ambitious and more brazen and he makes a quick transition from petty, organized thief to a slick and savvy con artist. But of course, Steven can only outrun the law for so long and as the long arm of the law reaches for him again, his relationship with Phillip becomes forever changed.
Until this point, the film is a pleasing enough diversion (though, it should be said, that some members of The Playlist had a much more visceral dislike of the film than this writer did). The concept of the film is a lot of fun and while not everything works, there are enough gags and genuine momentum to keep us interested. Unfortunately, that casual goodwill gets tossed out the window when the film, essentially, jumps the shark both with its story and tonally, in the final third. While the first two thirds are a whimsical romp, the last third does an ill-advised gear change to dramedy territory that feels both awkward and forced. There is a big late-stage sequence that feels woefully off- pace and nearly tanks the film, and even if it gets another twist to fit into the overall tone of the picture, it’s too late to revert back to the lighter-than-air tenor of the preceding eighty minutes or so (and yes, we’re being a bit cagey so as to prevent spoiling the turns the story takes).
But if even the story left us wanting, Ficarra and Requa are luckily to have two very game actors for their leads, and they both do very well in the picture. Carrey definitely shines as Steven, and while we’re sure some of that is due to him taking his first truly interesting role in years, it’s really nice to see Carrey finding a way to keep his mugging within the realm of his character while still delivering some big laughs. McGregor’s Phillip is less well-drawn than Steven and as such his performance, as young, dumb and dopey, is pretty one-note for the most part, but not without its charm (though his southern American accent is never convincing). Santoro surprises in a supporting role with some depth, but while we love Mann we’re tired of her playing variations of the anal retentive wife (which, yes, she can nail in her sleep, but her comedic skills are underutilized here).
Ultimately, despite the best efforts of the cast, the film’s uneven tone is a bit of a distraction — the switch from broad comedy to sober drama back to comedy doesn’t quite work — and the central thrust of “what-lengths-would-you-go-to-to-be-with-the-person-you-love” never resonates as strong as it should (if at all). “I Love You Phillip Morris” is a quirky, high-concept comedy that doesn’t quite clear the bar it sets for itself, relying so heavily on the comedy that the redemption story shift never feels natural. That said the performances, the Nick Urata score, the choice music selections (Nina Simone “To Love Somebody,” Johnny Mathis “Chances Are”) are highlights and if you’re prepared to forgive the film’s late stage transgressions, “I Love You Phillip Morris” entertains enough to pass away a lazy evening. [B-]