“‘Tis strange — but true; for truth is always strange; Stranger than fiction.” Thanks to Lord Byron for that famous saying that we’ll always quote in abridged form when talking about films based on impossibly real stories. The new films “The King’s Speech” and “I Love You Phillip Morris” are perfect affirmations of the phrase, though the latter’s tale of prison love and astonishing jailbreaks is the more obvious example (see my piece at Moviefone on the film’s few differences from the true story). Yet the part of “The King’s Speech” that struck me most, greater than Colin Firth’s Oscar-buzz-fodder performance, is how strangely ironic its story is within the historical context. The plot sounds like it was invented in a pitch meeting: a prince must overcome a serious speech impediment at a time when radio is both relatively new and at its peak, Europe is being threatened by one of the most powerfully captivating orators ever known and, oh, he happens to be handed the throne of England because the true heir, his brother, has abdicated in the name of love.
“Phillip Morris” also has an interesting historical context that may be overlooked, but it’s also a story very much of its time. I don’t know that I’d say ironically so, but calling it instead fortuitous seems insensitive. Not that the film is very politically correct. Much of the story of Steven Jay Russell (Jim Carrey) involves the re-appropriating of gay stereotypes and tragedies for the benefit of cons and complex prison escapes. At least on film he blames the homosexual lifestyle for his need to embezzle, he seemingly becomes the queen of the cell block because he’s more than willing to blow the other inmates for favors, and without spoiling too much he has no problem taking advantage of people’s fear of gays and especially those suffering from AIDS. Don’t believe the filmmakers and marketers claiming this isn’t a movie necessarily about a gay love story. It definitely is. It wouldn’t be quite as audaciously brilliant if the characters or their real counterparts were heterosexual.
More thoughts on both films (with potential SPOILERS) after the jump.
“The King’s Speech” – Passing the Torch
If there’s one thing I really like about the “Harry Potter” movies it’s that the casting of every great British thespian has made it easier for us to recommend other great movies starring those actors. As in, “hey kids, go see ‘The King’s Speech,’ because Dumbledore, Wormtail and Bellatrix are all in it.” This overlap occurs a lot. The new, under-seen horror thriller “Heartless” also features the actors who play Wormtail (Timothy Spall) and Fleur Delacour (Clémence Poésy). And of course the “Potter” films continue to be a good gateway to Mike Leigh’s work. Maybe the kids of today won’t immediately appreciate Michael Gambon as George V, Helena Bonham Carter as the (to-be) Queen Mum or Spall as a cartoonish Winston Churchill, but maybe when they’re older.
For a film involving a kind of torch passing — traditionally the royal succession; specifically Edward VIII’s unorthodox passing to George VI — another casting decision seems more intentional to me than it likely was. Geoffrey Rush, who won an Oscar for his performance as a real-life stammerer (David Helfgott) in “Shine,” is now ironically the eloquent speech therapist. And of course Firth will earn a nomination, if not also the Academy Award, in the role of the stammerer. Maybe one day he too will be promoted to the teacher’s position and Robert Pattinson can finally get his Oscar favor as a guy with a lisp. It’s a shame, by the way, that Rush isn’t as celebrated for his work in this movie. His and Firth’s performances are very different sorts, and they each work best when faced opposite the other. Sometimes I wish the Academy gave out a Best On-Screen Duo prize like the MTV Movie Awards do. Rush and Firth would be the one to beat this year — and there’s no way they’re being recognized by MTV.
“I Love You Phillip Morris” — The Closet is a Con?
I want to return to themes I addressed above with more detail and possibly with some spoilers. Steven Jay Russell is portrayed in the film as having become a conman as a direct result of his being gay. In real life he turned to crime after being fired from a job because he was found to be a homosexual. The lifestyle thing may have been true, too, but either way it’s pretty much implied in the film that society’s treatment of gays may cause them to become criminals. It’s like what people say about the cultural mistreatment of minorities and why so many of them are in prison. Of course, the prisons aren’t packed with gay men the way they’re packed with racial minorities.
At the point in the film when Russell decides to come out of the closet he says he refuses to keep leading a double life. Later, and this is not an accidental statement, he mentions the concept of a double life again when referring to his con jobs. Are the filmmakers really aligning being in the closet with identity fraud? I think so, but as a way of also bumping the two against each other. The closet “con” is not (always) a desirable or even realized masquerade for gays, but at times, more so in the past, it was a necessary for such duplicity in order to fit in to society. The real cons allowed Russell to conversely fit in with the gay society, or so he believed, and he also exploited certain aspects of his gayness for some of his disguises and scams. I hear some people think the film is homophobic for all this, but I don’t agree.
The AIDS con is pretty horrible, though. That Russell faked having AIDS and also died from it, yes, but the way the film uses it to con the audience is also very cruel. The film begins with a shot of Carrey as Russell in bed, dying. We assume it’s AIDS, and the film keeps returning to the same shot of the sickly looking man. Later we’re told that he has gotten AIDS and we watch almost the whole con play out before we find out that it is indeed a con. I celebrate the way the filmmakers exploit the audience’s empathy because I rarely am a compassionate film viewer. Or maybe I’d heard before that he’s still alive in prison and that was in the back of my mind the whole time? I’d love to hear if people get tricked this weekend.