They’re both successful enough to enjoy the rare privilege of turning down scripts if they don’t feel like doing them. And they also enjoy the even rarer privilege of being able to take a career risk, to do something really outside the box, and it won’t substantially affect their marketability, even if it flops. They occupy the enviable pinnacle of their coveted profession.
That’s why this movie remains a puzzlement. Is there such a thing as gay rage? Or is that an oxymoron?
“I Love You, Phillip Morris” is based on a true story. Carrey plays Steven Russell, a small-town policeman married to Debbie (Leslie Mann), and he has two secret passions: one is finding his real Mom (he knows he was adopted). The other is coming out of the closet. The problem is, Debbie is one of those Bible-thumping super-Christians who wouldn’t appear to have any tolerance for accepting the bisexuality of her husband, despite, or even because of, their daughter. We see Steven enthusiastically playing the piano and singing a traditional hymn in a Pentecostal church, all smiles and winsomeness.
But something cracks in him when he’s in a serious car accident. He decides that life is too short to live a lie. So he outs himself. And ends his marriage. And quits his job. And moves to Florida to live the high life with some well-chiseled young guy all too willing to help him spend his borrowed money with abandon.
But the house of cards comes crashing down, and Steven winds up in prison, where he meets Phillip Morris (McGregor), who shares a name with an old brand of cigarettes, but seems to be otherwise without a puff of vice. He’s kind, he’s sweet, he’s considerate, and he’s affectionate, and Russell is so thoroughly smitten that he promises everlasting commitment, which so far has proven to be elusive for him. Yes, it’s kind of a love story, but an irreverent one, where “the system” is there for the manipulation, and all the others, well, they’re available marks for any con that might actually work. Somehow Russell manages to impersonate a lawyer and free his friend, and they gleefully begin their happily ever after.
Steven manages to land a job as a high-powered CEO in a firm that has no idea he is bilking them, by investing their considerable income stream in very short-term interest-bearing accounts that accrue to him personally. Very clever. But it’s almost as if he can’t stand a little prosperity; he has to succeed noisily, and, of course, he’s caught again.
This time Phillip claims he’s tired of all the deceptions, and tries to move on with his life, but Russell has yet another trick up his sleeve: faking his own death of AIDS. Now that’s creative chicanery.
We’re supposed to root for these erstwhile lovers, even while they make a shipwreck of everybody else’s lives. Here, somehow phallic-shaped clouds are supposed to be funny. Sincere Christian faith is downright lampoon-able. And family abandonment just doesn’t matter.
Well, it’s a creative turn for these actors. But this is an offbeat film that will struggle to find a mainline audience.
RONALD P. SALFEN is pastor of Grace Church, Greenville, Texas.