Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Two Faces of Love Part B: I Love You Phillip Morris

Steven Russell is a small town cop and happy with his job, wife, daughter and lifestyle until a series of life changing events assail him and he becomes flamboyantly gay. There's a problem: being outwardly out is costly. It's not a choice of the heart or central nervous system but one of personal taste, credit-card bloating personal taste. Falling back on his knowledge of policing, he becomes a pretty good conman. But, as the persistent other lesson of this film goes, if you do the crime....

In prison he meets the Phillip of the title (lest you should think the movie was about an adoration of big tobacco) and the pair fall hopelessly in love. Well, not so hopelessly. Phillip brings to the amorous table the conscience that Steven has long abandoned as the luxury of the honest. This is the film. Steven's love getting him into worse scrapes and Phillip getting increasingly implicated as Steven's lack of conscience opens to an increasingly wider void until he seemingly is incapable of distinguishing the love that motivated him from the thrill of the con.

This story stands or falls on how much you as a viewer are prepared to forgive Steven his trespasses. You will be asked to do a lot more forgiving than Phillip. Can you? Well, you decide. The light sheen that the movie maintains over the action and its moral crises needs a performance that bridges levity and gravity. Ok, so you get that with Jim Carrey in the kind of effortless performance that always has the public of funny men falling to their knees in tribute. Hey, the wacky guy can play it straight.

Carrey has, of course, already done this a few times (most successfully in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) so no one should be too surprised. But here he really is impressive as he must bear the movie's through some turbulent passages, holding back on the goofiness here, letting the frown spread there. And he does. So why is this film not better than ok?

As I see it, the problem lies in the perfection of the portrayal. We get so truly convinced that Steven Russell is losing himself behind his endless series of ruses that he sacrifices the self that we might love the way Phillip did. In very short time we have lost touch with him but the often elaborate machinations he designs are no substitute.

A mistake is made early on when Steven uses his influence in prison to fulfil a wish uttered by Phillip. The solution is humourlessly violent but is played for laughs anyway. It's not Carrey's fault but the writing and direction. It's a fault that leads to further ill-judged setups that should be either shenanigans or serious moral dilemmas but are always presented as loveable capers.

For once I can't blame an ego-bound movie star for wanting to act like an actor. Robin Williams has ruined how many movies with his apparent insistence on his directors' indulgence? Jennifer Jason Leigh's career stiffed early on when her quest for truth in movie acting fashioned some truly repellent characters whose place at the centre of their narratives killed each film in turn. Adam Sandler did Punch Drunk Love but then went back to being Adam Sandler.

Carrey has shown he can act and his goofy face-pulling days seem dim and distant now. If only he could find the director he needs (as well as Michel Gondry). Love might well find a way but there's none lost here between me and the screen.

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