Thursday, December 2, 2010

In Theaters: "I Love You Phillip Morris"

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s I Love You Phillip Morris is a wry, unpredictable little movie, with an oddball spirit that is both its blessing and its curse. It is, without question, a unique picture, with a zippy pace that barrels through enough plot for a miniseries, and a giggly tone that turns on a dime. But it is so much its own, peculiar entity that it is all but impossible to judge exactly what it’s trying to do, and whether it is doing it. Set adrift from our standard barometers, one cannot be sure whether it is nimble or messy, whether the narrative is ingenious or hodgepodge, whether Carrey’s performance is a masterstroke or a nightmare. It feels, at times, like Ficarra and Requa (who both wrote and directed) came up with three or four different approaches to the material, wrote them all, fed them into a paper shredder, and shot what came out.

Of course, the last thing you can charge most pictures with these days is a lack of ambition, so kudos to the filmmakers for taking this gonzo approach to the fact-based material. They hurl right in to the complicated exposition from the jump, introducing us to Steven Russell (Carrey), a small-town police officer, father of one and husband to hyper-Christian Debbie (the always-game Leslie Mann). Within minutes, though, we find out that Steven is secretly gay, and after a near-death experience, he decides to come out of the closet, loud and proud. Come to find out, his particularly lavish gay lifestyle requires more disposable income than is readily available, so he starts using fake credit cards and other schemes, eventually landing in prison. There, he meets Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a soft-spoken sweetheart; they begin a gentle romance, which becomes the motivation for Steven’s future long and short cons.

There’s more to the movie than that, though, much more, but there’s only so many words to use here, and it would take several paragraphs to explain exactly how Steven ends up masquerading as a lawyer trying to fudge his way through a legal proceeding, or finds himself employing Enron-style creative bookkeeping as the CFO for a large corporation, or the sharp turns that pitch the film into dead serious (and slightly out of tone) flashback to the deathbed of Steven’s first lover. The jam-packed plotting doesn’t always make for a smooth-running picture; the filmmakers end up relying pretty heavily on dense voice-over narration to asphalt over the rougher road.

Still, though they may not always place, the filmmakers deserve some credit for entering every event. As writers, Ficarra and Requa are mostly known for comedy, both dark (their most notable credit to date is the immortal Bad Santa) and light (the Cats & Dogs movies); the overall tone here is comedic, though there is less laughing-out-loud and more chuckling and shaking one’s head. The matter-of-fact sexuality is admirably blunt (so much so that the film’s had some trouble finding a distributor), even if it is occasionally (and regrettably) used for cheap laughs. As first-time filmmakers, Ficarra and Requa exhibit a knack for smooth photography and inventive montage—the assemblage of Steven’s various escape attempts is particularly jaunty—as well as a strong sense of comedic composition (note the memorable scene where the leading men slow dance as another inmate gets his ass kicked in the cell next door).

But the lightning-fast pace prevents the picture from doing much more than floating the trial balloons of potentially compelling themes, and while we appreciate the surprising (and effective) emotions of the climactic scenes, the subsequent plotting plays like a series of cheap shots. Still, the kind of narrative daring and commercial disregard on display in I Love You Phillip Morris is worth applauding, even if the results are uneven. It’s a strange picture, and not entirely successful, but it’s certainly inimitable. You have to give it that.

"I Love You Phillip Morris" opens Friday, December 3rd in New York and L.A.

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