How far can you take a gay joke?
In a defining moment early in this film we see Jim Carrey’s character Steven Russell pounding into someone from behind with fearful intensity. Surprise: it’s not his wife, but a burly man with a moustache shouting: “Do it! Come in my ass!” Steven howls with joy as he grants the request.
Two things are very clear from the start: this is an outrageous comedy about a flaming homosexual shunting no topic for laughs, but it is also a film that laughs along with gays, not at them. Though many characters in the supporting cast may throw around discriminating language such as ‘faggot’, I Love You Phillip Morris presents a loving view on queerness and is ultimately about a warm romance between two humans, not two men.
Steven is an impulsive conman. Ever since he found out he was adopted and gay, he’s been lying his way through life to please others or get around. When he inevitably ends up in prison for his acts of fraud, he meets the kindest person in the world: soft-spoken Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). The latter is as simple as the former is complicated, yet they fall in love with a ferocity and affection that would put Romeo and Juliet to shame. Steven works his hustling magic in jail to become a fixer who can get pretty much anything done, including getting them off the hook. But happily ever after isn’t meant for Steven, who cannot resist the lure of easy money through deceit. His behavior forms the core of the comedy, that works because it constantly toys with our expectations. It uses our assumptions against us, increasing the delight when the pay-off hits.
Jim Carrey is perfect for this role. He eschews the youthful grimaces of his past that brought him fame, and uses his expressiveness in more mature ways. It’s a great balance between his early work and later, more thoughtful parts.
A problem is how meek and docile Phillip is. He is a passive character that waits at home for Steven to return, feels hurt and helpless when he finds out about the lies and does not protest when his lover treats him like a baby to be protected. Gender issues play a subtle part in this: had Phillip been a woman, it would’ve been an offensive stereotype. But he’s a man and therefore, I guess, we accept it? As what, exactly? As a fun role reversal? As his choice? It’s a troubling point, but not to the detriment of the overall experience.
Boy, what a fun comedy this is. Carrey’s inspired antics to escape incarceration are a blast. Prison is here a sunny, airy, almost magical place with colorful yellow uniforms and its own particular set of rules. It’s like Hogwarts in a way, except with more involuntary fellatio. It’s true that the film paints a caricature of life in jail and flirts with its male rape that must in reality be rampant and a terrible concern. But it’s hard to be upset with I Love You Phillip Morris. It’s so deliciously flamboyant, so good-natured in everything it does, you can’t help but love it. It’s an incredibly effective comedy filled with hilarious moments, a heartfelt romance and Jim Carrey at his best.