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On “Phillip Morris”

On "Phillip Morris"

Here’s a clip from the post-premiere Q&A of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s “I Love You Phillip Morris,” perhaps the most high-profile film screening at Sundance this year:

I was horribly annoyed the entire time. Almost every question predictably pertained to the gay content in the film. One man shouted out: “What was it like playing a gay man? McGregor answered the question as eloquently as it allowed. “Its the same as playing any other kind of man,” he said. “It was never unpleasant or awkward to kiss or cuddle.” The directors responded by noting that “the whole point when we got into this was just to portray them as two people in love. Gay had nothing to do with it was just incidental.” How many fucking times have we heard these answers? Or questions about the “risk” involved in playing a gay man.

Worse was all the cheering whenever anyone on stage said anything remotely pro-gay. This is 2009. Of course they’re going to say those things. Whether its because they are simply decent human beings or faking it because they are at the world premiere of a gay film they just made, they’re answers couldn’t have been anything else. It’s nothing revolutionary and doesn’t deserve applauding.

You can see the rest in the video, but seriously: Is this going to be the same, repeated bullshit everytime a gay movie gets made in the mainstream? Whether Tom & Antonio, Heath & Jake, Sean & James, Jim & Ewan, what is with this homophobic curiosity as to how challenging it must be for two straight actors to kiss? And this lame sense of liberalism people get from “tolerating” these films? I feel like I’m being repetitive even getting annoyed by it.

A new annoyance altogether though, was the film itself. Based on a true story, “Phillip Morris” follows Steve Russell (Jim Carrey), a con man who meets the love of his life, Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor) while in prison for insurance fraud. Russell devotes the rest of his life to ensuring that he and Morris will remain together forever, which leads to some pretty extraordinary feats. This includes, most incredibly, faking his own death from AIDS.

I’ll give the movie this: It’s new territory. There is nothing issue-oriented about it, unlike almost any other straight-made gay film ever to find itself in the mainstream. Ficarra and Requa’s approach was, as they said, to treat the film as if it was just about “two people in love.”

The problem is, its not about that. Its about a mentally unstable man whose dishonestly seems directly related to his issues with sexuality. Its about AIDS. Its about the influence of Christianity in closetdom (Russell is a devout Christian married to Leslie Mann for the first 1/2 hour of the film). Its about coming out. Its about two men in love, which socially and politically is not the same as any other combination of genders. Especially when its based on a true story and set across the 1980s and 1990s, vastly complicated climates for gay identity.

Its actually a pretty amazing story with a lot of potential, almost none of which is realized here. I found the film shallow and underdeveloped. While I honestly believe Glenn Ficarra and John Requa had the best intentions, they were clearly not the right people for the job. They bring a bizarrely farcical tone to a subject matter that does not warrant it. Carrey and McGregor’s performances always felt slightly distanced from reality, as did their relationship, and that led me to find it impossible to find any sort of true representation of gay identity on the screen. Instead, I kept thinking: This is what happens when a bunch of well-intentioned straight guys make a gay movie.

I occasionally even found myself rather offended. Which I’d like to think is not an easy task. I’m usually a big fan of PC boundary-pushing comedy, at least when its done right (“Its Always Sunny In Philadelphia” is the random example that popped into my head). But that’s not really what was going on here. First of all, I rarely found it actually funny. And sometimes it felt like it was simply mocking the subject matter, mostly because of how distanced I felt from it. People in the theatre were laughing, I just wasn’t one of them. And I know many a gay that felt the same way.

But a lot of people seemed to like it, so maybe I’ve just all of a sudden become a whiny gay, or the sleep deprivation of Sundance led me into any easily offensive mind state.

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