“I Love You Phillip Morris”: a prison love story

Do you ever find yourself wanting to watch a film about two men who find each other and fall in love in prison? Yeah, me, too. And so I caved and finally sat down to watch the highly-rated “I Love You Phillip Morris” on Netflix. Besides, Ewan McGregor, Obi-Wan Kenobi himself, was in it! How could I go wrong?

I’m not entirely sure what I expected with this movie, but I did end up pleasantly surprised. I think I originally expected a gut-busting comedy, but was taken aback at how much emotional heart the film also possessed.

Jim Carrey co-stars with McGregor as Steven Russell, a man who appears, by all intents and purposes, as a straight Christian happily-married police officer. But after he tries to track down the mother that gave him up for adoption, he decides to lose all pretense and admits to the world that he is gay and has been all along. He quits his job, leaves his wife and child and goes out into the world to discover who he really is.

The thing with Steven, though, is that he is a very good liar and con artist.  Steven has an idea of what gay life should be, and in his mind, it is very expensive. He turns to fraud  to pay for this imagined luxurious life and ends up in jail several times.

It is in jail, however, that he meets the soft-spoken Phillip Morris. The two immediately form a bond, in spite of Phillip being transferred to another block of the prison. They carry out a romance via written letters, but thanks to Steven’s conniving, the two end up assigned to the same block and jail cell. And obviously, their romance blossoms.

Yes, at its core, “I Love You Phillip Morris” is a romantic film. Carrey and McGregor somehow makes these two characters believable and do not fall into the trap of gay stereotype in order to do so. As this was a concern I had going into the film, I was surprised to discover that they nailed these characters perfectly. Carrey’s con-artist dominance seemed to meld perfectly with McGregor’s shy and vulnerable sweetness. But then again, I don’t think there’s a role that McGregor could not play.

Leslie Mann as Debbie, Steven’s ex-wife, does a complete 180 from her usual role. She is the perfect church-going housewife, who insists that Steven is a good man, even after he has walked out on her and their daughter to pursue his gay lifestyle. She ends up one of his best friends and supports him throughout his life.

The film also deals with the very real threat of AIDS to gay men. I’m assuming this takes place in the 80’s or 90’s when the disease was relatively new. It’s still a very scary and un-treatable disease during this time frame and is shown as such.

The climax of the film comes as a complete shock with moments where I was nearly crying my eyes out to then find myself screaming “NO, HE DIDN’T!” I am trying desperately here not to give it away, but it’s a good wool over everyone’s eyes moment. And I think it is a classic example of Steven as a character.

What I loved about Steven is his insistence on not ever changing. He is lying and conning folks right up to the end of the film. It makes him both despicable and lovable, all at the same time. Unfortunately, for him, he always seemed to get caught. He would get away with one scheme only to be arrested for the next. And when he gets arrested, you swear you’re watching an episode of “Cops” – the funny ones where the perpetrators say all sorts of hilarious things as they’re being shoved into a police car.

If you’re turned off by two gay men falling in love, this is obviously not the film for you. I would hope, however, that my readers are more open-minded that that, and give this movie a viewing. Because it really is a good example of a romantic comedy that would have worked regardless of whether the characters were two gay men or two gay women or a straight couple. It’s a funny story about two people in love and what they have to overcome to be together.

Also, one small note: “I Love You Phillip Morris” was based on a true story. Or so it says. Really.

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