I Love You, Phillip Morris

Gay for pay
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2009
Director: 
Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Starring: 
Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor, Leslie Man, Rodrigo Santoro
The Setup: 
The story of a gay con man and the love of his life.
Discussion: 

When my friend from Germany was visiting, he talked about "that gay Jim Carrey-Ewan McGregor movie that came out a few years ago," and I was like "There is no such movie." But turns out there is, and it had come and gone in the rest of the world, who were apparently deemed better-equipped to deal with it than uptight Americans. Now here it is, in an apologetic release before Christmas where it will soon be subsumed by other, bigger movies, taxes can be written off, and the whole thing forgotten.

This is written and directed by the writers of Bad Santa, which everyone else loved but me. It is purportedly based on a true story, and opens with a title: "This really happened. It really did." We join Jim Carrey as Steven Russell on his deathbed, remembering the moment his parents told him he is adopted. We soon advance to his adulthood with his wife, super-Christian Debbie. Steven is a cop, a profession which, we are told, he went into for the express purpose of locating his birth mother. When he does, he sees four of her adult kids, that she did NOT abandon, around the dinner table, and his mother literally slams the door in his face. We also learn that Steven has been having sex with men, introduced in a scene where he is fucking a guy, the guy begging him to cum in his ass. I didn't see a year that all this is happening, and if I'm seeing a guy on screen begging for someone to cum in his ass, I'd prefer everyone understanding that these are the years before AIDS. Anyway, Steven gets into a car accident on his way from his mother's, and decides then that he's going to become openly gay. So to summarize: He maintained a culturally-proper life with a wife and kids until the moment he had to face that his mother really rejected and abandoned him, at which point he decided he was going to pursue his own pleasure and dissolve his own ties to anyone else. So if he had felt an emotional connection, he would have remained straight? But since the world screwed him, he's going to screw it back by becoming gay, i.e. selfish? That is the basis we're proceeding from.

He moves to Florida, buys a lot of expensive stuff, gets two small dogs and a boyfriend who publicly displays his abs. Steven says "I bought anything I wanted," but soon discovers that "being gay is really expensive." Because, you see, being gay is primarily about hedonism and the pursuit of high-ticket luxury items.

Steven turns to fraud and is soon landed in jail. There he sees McGregor as Phillip and is instantly smitten. There is a nice montage in which we see their relationship developing through the exchange of letters. Soon Steven has engineered his being moved into Phillip's cell. There is a guy next door who screams all night. Steven arranges to have him beaten up. Upon learning that Steven was behind it, Phillip collapses in tears; "That's the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for me."

They get a neighboring tough con to play "Chances Are" as they slow-dance in their cell, the con playing the song til the end despite the fact that guards are beating him for it. They openly sit in each other's arms as they watch movies with the other prisoners. Then, when Steven is transferred to another prison, Phillip runs along the prison fence shouting out his love.

SPOILERS > > >
Steven fakes his way into becoming CFO of a large company, fakes huge profits and casts himself as a genius [the mechanics of this are not made clear], and starts embezzling. He poses as Phillip's lawyer, makes up a fake release order, and gets him out of prison. Vowing to "take care of him," Phillip essentially becomes a Real Housewife in a luxury loft, then mansion, laying around the pool all day or stuffing chocolates in his mouth, cooing in sentimentality at the gooey messages printed in their wrappers. During these sequences it seems that the majority of what is supposed to be humorous is how VERY gay they are: we are invited to giggle knowingly at their decor, their love of high luxury, their matching cars, their simple-minded sentimentality. Eventually Steven is caught for embezzling and must flee, ending up back in jail.

It continues, leading up to a huge deception--Steven gets out of jail by faking having AIDS. This brings us back to him lying on his "deathbed" from the beginning. He is soon arrested trying to contact Phillip [who has realized how Steven has been lying all along], and Phillip is sent back to prison, too. The film wraps up, letting us know that Steven escaped several more times until he was placed in 23-hour isolation in a life sentence.
< < < SPOILERS END

When we walked out of it none of my friends really liked it. Most felt it was trying to be too many genres and tones at once, and one of them wanted more black comedy, and was unhappy with all the sentimentality. Another friend of mine who went separately was surprised by "how bad it was," but commented it was getting good notices in the gay press because the movie centers on them being criminals, and their gayness is only a character trait.

As for me, the multi-genres didn't really bother me, and it was all amusing enough, although it never quite took flight. Tellingly, afterward none of us really talked much about the movie itself afterward as we did the various issues it raised.

For example, what really is the "humor" here? I was surprised the extent to which we are supposed to laugh at just HOW VERY GAY they are. We're supposed to laugh at their decor [animal patterns and roccoco accents rear their head again], how being gay is EQUATED with desire for expensive luxury items, a certain obliviousness to the tackiness of having matching yappy dogs or matching red convertibles with vanity plates, or their simple-minded fawning over fuzzy sentimentality as exemplified by Johnny Mathis or the syrupy messages printed in chocolate wrappers. We also talked about why it's necessary that everyone knows the actors in a film like this are straight [so a mainstream straight audience can get into all this without being grossed out (they don't REALLY have sex with men), while the gay audience is coddled with the assurance that these big-name actors think playing gay is pretty cool], so I think a lot of the "humor" is seeing these two straight actors playing really, REALLY gay. Which allows one to accept a lot of what otherwise might be considered offensive stereotypes, because it's all winking and we all know it's just for play.

One other thing to talk about is dominant styles of pandering to minorities. For example, when a movie wants to pander to black audiences, it's all about how they have worldly wisdom and how hip-hop is equivalent to Shakespeare. When a movie wants to pander to Hispanics, it's all about how they aren't uptight like whites and have truly devoted, warm family and community connections. And right now, when a movie wants to pander to gays, it's all about how they REALLY LOVE EACH OTHER. It's not all about cock and drugs and hedonism [although you can be vapidly materialistic, that's perfectly fine], it's about real, true love. And this thread of high-flung romance and operatic sentimentality is what this movie uses to balance what otherwise might seem rude and certainly politically incorrect.

By the way, if you want to see a movie that is quite similar and handles the gay thing a bit better [and also comes weighted with fewer expectations], you should watch Let's Go To Prison. It contains an unexpected little gay love story that is quite sweet and perhaps a tad more realistic than what's presented in this "true story." Ironically, I am reading the book that film was based on right now--it's a self-published and very raw guide to what life is really like in prison ["Will you get butt-fucked? Short answer: YES."]--and I was thinking of it often during this film, as it casts the depiction of prison life here [and in pretty much every movie] as a total lie. Apparently real prisons are so horrible their real conditions would not make for any kind of entertainment.

Anyway, a quick perusal of the IMDb reveals a lot of people who love this movie and numerous others who hate it and find it offensive. To me that means you should probably see it! Even if you hate it, it's still worth seeing where the popular dialogue is and what's acceptable right now. As an entertaining movie, okay, but far less satisfying.

Should you watch it: 

If you're gay, it's worth seeing what depictions are going on out there. If you're straight and find gays inherently humorous, you might like it as well.