Truly in Love with “Phillip Morris”

Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

How do you get over the old dictum that being honest means telling the truth? As a culture, Americans have a troubled relationship with honesty, with very crude notions about how a person “is” honest or acts honestly. On one hand, we expect narrative films to portray human interactions honestly — we’re begging to be conned by the films we watch. On the other hand, we have silly ideas about how our actions define us; an actor “is” gay in a film, but “is” straight in “real life” — we like to feel like we’re in charge while we’re being conned.

Forgive me for being esoteric, but the questions raised by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s recent queer love story/caper film, “I Love You, Phillip Morris,” merit considerable reflection. The film, based on the “true story” of Steven Russell and Phillip Morris, is easily the best film in the recent crop of mainstream Hollywood films with queer lead characters played by (ostensibly) straight actors (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Milk,” “The Kids Are All Right” etc.).

By turns touching and torrid, cringe-worthy and tear-worthy, Ficarra and Requa’s story of a queer con artist (Steven Russell, played by Jim Carrey) and his greatest love (Phillip Morris, played by Ewan McGregor) soars on the strength of its lead actors, but is also a study in comic restraint.

More importantly, the film ventures into territory that mainstream queer films (and mainstream queer political movement, while we’re at it) have long-ago abandoned. These are queers behind bars and wasting away from AIDS, and still loving.

Jim Carrey’s Steven Russell is a perfect maturation of Carrey’s explosive (and uneven) early-career buffoonery. After trying to lead an exceedingly decent life (hoping to impress the mother who gave him up for adoption) as a church organist and cop, Steven decides to come out to his family after a grisly car accident. The directors are none too subtle on this point; just before his convertible is t-boned, Steven fixes himself in the mirror and checks his watch; what will be his truth in the time he has left?

The film would benefit by giving McGregor more screen time. As Phillip Morris, a gentle, sweet man who “sees the good in everybody,” McGregor offers the most intense, yet subtle and often wordless, portrayal of a person completely subsumed by love that I have ever seen in theatres. Some reviewers have called McGregor’s Phillip Morris unconvincing, and I’d wager that this misrecognition comes only from the shame of their meeting McGregor’s gaze in the theatre and having to turn away.

The film is anchored by a stellar supporting cast. Leslie Mann plays Steven’s arch-Christian ex-wife in a pitch-perfect and multivalent monochrome, but she is the only primary female character (films about queer men still have issues getting women on the screen). Rodrigo Santoro plays Jimmy, Steven’s first love out of the closet, delivering some of the film’s most touching moments. And Michael Mandel is a hoot, but a very complicated, ambivalent hoot, as fellow inmate, Cleavon, who helps the two leads cement their love in that peculiar way that black characters in white movies always do: by being beaten up loudly off-screen while the leads kiss in the dark.

Such uncomfortable moments are the film’s stock-in-trade, and Carrey is masterful at playing with the many awkward silences. This isn’t a laugh-a-minute roller coaster ride of a film, though. It’s more of a keen-eyed, mid-tempo comedy of manners with a number of crescendos. It takes its time and takes a number of risks — really, it’s a story about freedom and the stakes of freedom. Steven liberates himself from prison the same number of times he nearly dies in the film.

It’s worth reflecting on that the prisons Steven keeps finding himself in are much more solid and unforgiving than the closet, which he escapes with relative ease (relative to escaping prison, that is). And it definitely merits mention that the “real life” Steven Russell is serving an unprecedented life-sentence for his multiple prison escapes. In our historical moment, few truths are more dangerous than the one at the heart of the film: human beings cannot love and cannot live in cages, and America is the world’s leader in caging human beings.

Late in the film, after Phillip realizes the extent of Steven’s cons, he asks Steven while awaiting their arraignment, “How do I love someone who doesn’t even exist?” In a poetic turn, Steven finds the answer by faking his own death, by embracing his own non-existence, to escape prison and see the man he loves. A valuable truth indeed; that human beings belong in love.