Written and Directed by John Requa, Glenn Ficarra
Starring Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor, Rodrigo Santoro, Antoni Corone, Leslie Mann
Sixteen years after hitting it big with gross out comedies, Ace Ventura… and Dumb and Dumber, Jim Carrey heads back to the well with …Phillip Morris. If you’d like a semi-autobiographical film based on gay con man Steven Jay Russell where at least some of the gross out includes gay sex, this might be for you. The film had trouble getting a distributor at first due to the explicit content. They shave enough down until it eventually was edited enough to be palatable. The end result feels like an approximation of the Farrelly Brothers, without any three dimensional characters, except for Carrey’s Russell. He’s not at all relatable, if sometimes funny.
The inability to relate has little to do with his being gay. He’s not the first and won’t be the last. That he leaves a wife (Mann) and kids in his wake is disconcerting, but this is a choice Russell made. We get a whiff of his first relationship (with Santoro), and we also see the wreck he makes of both of their lives by lying, cheating and conning people to pay for his expensive lifestyle. This all comes to an end, then he is sent to prison.
Once in prison, Russell meets and immediately falls for McGregor’s titular Phillip Morris. McGregor has played flamboyant often enough that this is a walk in the park for him. Unfortunately he doesn’t get to do more than wait and be surprised. Russell cons not only his way out of prison, but Phillip, too. Then he goes on to be a lawyer for McGregor’s family too.
Eventually this new routine catches up to Russell and he’s back in jail. And the cycle continues. What could be a pretty amazing story is relegated to some cheap laughs through messing around with the timeline style editing. Sometimes it works (the opening scene) and other times, like when we get a surprise postscript on Santoro’s character, it’s just too convenient to create the emotional pull that it could have.
The biggest problem with making this astounding story into a comedy is that every character is essentially a prop. There is no reason to be invested in any of Russell’s relationships, because Requa and Ficarra place them only where they need to be to provide a punchline. The treatment of Russell’s first wife is a perfect example. Is she a simple-minded Christian, or is she just going through the motions? It depends on what the joke needs.
Carrey is essentially the same here as he is in any comedy. He’s manic, frantic, sincere and not even in the room when he’s listening to those he supposedly loves. It doesn’t matter that he’s going all out for the gay or emerging from the ass of a fake Rhinoceros. There has to be something real for him to act off of sometimes.
As for McGregor, he’s wasted here. If you just want someone to look at, that’s okay. It’s kind of like having Margot Robbie in your movie and just having her alternate from a smile to a frown and back. Nothing to grab out of the performance. If the story is going to have his name in the title, one would hope to learn at least one distinguishing characteristic about Phillip Morris.
Like with anything, there’s an evolution in characterizations of any marginalized group. Five years removed from Brokeback Mountain, this still feels relatively early on in the process of getting beyond token gay characters. It’s too true to be a comedy, and too insane to be drama. Maybe a mini-series could have let it all air out and make us feel like we’re watching a story about humans.
(**1/2 out of *****)