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I Love You, Phillip Morris: Denver Film Festival Review

In my Denver Film Festival preview piece last week, I joked that every two or three years Jim Carrey makes a movie that is either slightly more interesting or slightly less annoying than his typical work, and that I Love You, Phillip Morris is this year’s. And though I enjoy the movie a great deal, I stand by that comment. Jim Carrey’s career path is exceptionally obnoxious. He wants to have his cake and eat it too, whiplashing back and forth between lowest common denominator slapstick and shameless Oscar bait. The problem is that he brings too much of both extremes to either type of role. His slapstick is too saccharine and his dramatic roles feel as though he's struggling to contain some goofy outburst. Happily, I Love You, Phillip Morris overcomes the “Jim Carrey stigma.” Uncontainable conman Steven Russel is Carrey's best role yet. The comedy is genuine and earned, and the heartfelt scenes are still true to Steven’s larger-than-life personality.

The story I Love You, Phillip Morris is based on is so outrageous, a screen title at the beginning of the movie informs the audience not only that “This is a true story,” but also insists, “It really is.” The flamboyantly gay Steven Russel notes early on concerning his extravagant lifestyle, “Nobody really talks about this, but being gay is really expensive.” This is about as close as we get to a moral defense for any of Steven’s unbelievable scams. After a series of staged injury claims, Steven predictably lands himself in prison. It’s there that he meets the love of his life, the titular Phillip Morris, played with fragile charm by Ewan McGregor. As soon as Steven finishes his sentence, he poses as a lawyer to arrange Phillip’s early release, and doesn’t bother to correct Phillip’s assumption that he really is a lawyer. Thus Steven’s cycle of habitual conning begins anew, landing him in prison again. This time, however, his longing for Phillip makes his incarceration unbearable. In real life, Steven Russel escaped from federal prison 4 times, and watching his daring and resourcefulness play out onscreen is a delight.

Steven is the latest addition in a long line of cinematic anti-heroes. Steven is completely aware of the illegality of his actions. But like all great American criminals of cinema history, ingenuity, bravado, personality, and balls supersede the law in the affections of the viewer. Let’s face it, many, many American heroes were or are criminals. Many of our country’s geniuses either skirted the law, exploited areas where the law was gray, or just out and out broke the law. The older I get, the more I feel that that’s simply the way the world works. I’ve written before that I feel too much like Hitchcock, with a super-conscious paranoia that keeps me fearful of breaking the law. That’s probably why I won’t go down in history the way Steven Russel will. With the law or against it, characters like Steven are an integral part of the fabric of American identity.

-Ben

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I Love You, Phillip Morris: Denver Film Festival Review + sdff