Pro con 

Carrey charms in I Love You Phillip Morris

I spent two hours at the Wilma on Sunday night, the majority of which was devoted to watching I Love You Phillip Morris. My favorite moment of the evening, however, occurred as I loitered in the lobby following the film.

"Are you the guy who writes reviews for the Indy?" asked the lone Wilma employee as he went about closing up the theater for the night.

"Yeah," I said, before pausing to add a pathetic clarification: "Most of the time."

"We don't decide how long films stay here," he said. "There's a company in L.A. that looks at our box office totals and decides which ones will keep playing."

The comment came in response to last week's review in which I made a joke about The King's Speech never leaving the Wilma, a joke that I never bothered to actually, you know, ask the theater's management about. So now I know. And so do you.

In truth I was just glad to be back at The Wilma for only the second time in more than two months, because even though they get the occasional dud, one is generally safe from the types of soul-sucking disasters that have plagued other theaters this year. Yes, I'm going to be angry about Sucker Punch for a long time.

I Love You Phillip Morris is hardly a dud, but it is one of the strangest based-on-a-true-story films to come along in a while, and I won't even pretend to claim that I'd heard of the film's anti-hero protagonist Steven Russell before last weekend. This is strange, because you'd think the story of a gay Texas con with 14 aliases, four prison escapes and a reported IQ of over 160 would attract more attention. Throughout the '80s and '90s, Russell outsmarted a lot of smart people, hustling his way into big time finance jobs, impersonating judges and FBI agents, and stealing a lot of cash. He also fell in love with one of his prison mates, the eponymous Phillip Morris.

click to enlarge Yellow? You calling me yellow?
  • Yellow? You calling me yellow?

The film about the man dubbed "King Con" and his lover isn't as good as the real story probably deserves, but it's still an entertaining romp that never takes itself too seriously. It's also Jim Carrey's best film since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which isn't saying a whole lot but it is nonetheless encouraging seeing him in role perfectly suited for his confident charm. With a mischievous and exaggerated southwestern twang, Carrey adds an element of endearing bombast to each con, even as the crimes—and the associated risks—become larger. When a judge begins to suspect Russell isn't the lawyer he is pretending to be, Carrey is at his best, wiggling himself out of a precarious situation with hardly a word.

The love story between Russell and Morris (Ewan McGregor) is charming. They meet in the prison library and quickly fall for each other, with Russell soon orchestrating a way for them to become roommates. It's the exact opposite of your typical prison drama, which is refreshing at first and problematic as the film progresses. The main problem with it all is that Russell, once a con and always a con, can't even tell the whole truth to the man he supposedly loves. That Morris would never suspect his boyfriend might be lying to him about his personal and criminal past only makes things more unrealistic. I mean, they're in prison—lots of liars in the big house. What's more, director and writer Glen Ficarra decided to make liberal use of unusual prison colors (brightly colored walls, yellow prison uniforms), resulting in an odd cartoonish feel as the movie see-saws back and forth between dark comedy, romantic drama and heist film. Ask five people to classify the genre of this movie and you'll get at least five different answers.

In the case of I Love You Phillip Morris, that's a good thing. Whereas the unevenness and constantly shifting tones would crush other films, somehow this one remains relatively unscathed. The choppiness slowly becomes its strength, and not knowing which direction the film is heading from scene to scene actually works to the story's benefit. I would still call it a dark comedy, but I reserve the right to change my mind.

Nowhere does this juggling act of I Love You Phillip Morris work more effectively than during Russell's prolonged final con, which mixes melodrama with humor in a way that is surprisingly original. I didn't see the twist coming, but isn't that what's supposed to happen when you're dealing with a film about con men?

I Love You Phillip Morris continues at the Wilma Theatre.

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