Has it really been five years, since Brokeback Mountain supposedly broke new ground, that we’ve had to wait for another remotely mainstream gay romance? (For argument’s sake we’ll say Milk and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry cancel each other out.) And is there any good excuse that Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s I Love You Phillip Morris has had to wait half that time just to get American distribution? It’s nothing special, but that’s never stopped anyone from releasing a Jim Carrey movie before. Could it be that America still isn’t ready to see two favorite actors necking?
Eleven months after its Argentinian television premiere, I Love You Phillip Morris has finally earned a U.S. release, and neither its content nor the implicit censorship of its delay have seemed of much interest to those whose business it is to get upset about those things. This speaks strongly to the politics, or lack thereof, that make the film calmly subversive. Brokeback Mountain was a powerful barometer for gay/straight relations; I Love You Phillip Morris is a middling con-man/prison-break comedy that centers nonchalantly around two men in love.
The film is based on the true story of Steven Russel (Carrey), a husband, father, and cop who decides, after a traumatic experience, to embrace his homosexuality. Moving from Texas to Miami, he finds himself committing small-time fraud to support a new and lavish lifestyle, and eventually he gets caught. One day in the prison law library he meets shy, sweet Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), falls in love at first sight, and introduces himself as a lawyer.
There’s a wonderful sweetness between the two actors, and their medium-security courtship—they even bunk together for a time, thanks to Steven’s prison savvy—is the film’s strongest section. McGregor in particular projects an intense vulnerability, and I’m hard-pressed to think of a leading lady Carrey has had this much chemistry with. Phillip sees in small ways what Steven is capable of, but it’s all to his benefit, and he senses no deception. When they get out and prepare to start a life together, Steven knows no better way to do it than up the ante as a con man, even if he has to hide his nature from Phillip.
I’d take issue with how bone-headed some of those cons were if he hadn’t actually gotten away with them. But the emotional context of Steven’s recklessness through the film’s second half gives the story a clearly defined drama that frees I Love You Phillip Morris from the obligation of “going gay,” so to speak. The relationship between Steven and Phillip is deeply felt, and a shared gender has exceptionally little to do with where things go from there.
This isn’t to say their sexual orientation is a non-issue, of course, or even that there aren’t occasional missteps. There’s gay-themed humor throughout—Steven, for instance, finds out the one thing he can’t fake is being able to golf—and there are a handful of moments played for shock. But a certain coarseness is expected from the filmmaking duo who brought us Bad Santa, and it’s to their credit they never stoop to gay panic or empty stereotyping.
No, what’s interesting about Philip Morris as mainstream queer cinema is the absence of homophobia as an antagonistic force. Except for an off-hand lie Steven tells co-workers at a dinner party (it is, after all, his specialty) Steven and Phillip are both proudly gay and in an open, committed relationship. The only things that threaten that relationship are deceit and an occasional correctional facility. Fellow inmates help the lovers pass notes, the prison doesn’t seem to mind them sharing a cell, and even Steven’s ex-wife (Leslie Mann) remains on inexplicably warm terms with him, offering forgiveness through Jesus’ love. (It’s not insignificant that Ficarra and Requa make that a character trait instead of a joke.)
It’s possible, in fact, that the international audiences who’ve been shrugging off I Love You Philip Morris these many months left the theater with a pleasantly skewed notion of America’s gay-friendliness. That misinformation may not be anything to be proud of, and there will likely be those in the LGBT community who disapprove of the movie’s overall rosy outlook, especially given the details of its final act. But it’s still encouraging to see an otherwise unsophisticated film break casually away from the narrative of victimization, and reason enough to recommend it.