I Love You, Phillip Morris! (2010) | Review by Mark Leidner
I almost didn’t see I Love You, Phillip Morris because I thought it was going to be a satire about the tobacco industry and I had already seen Thank You For Smoking. But thankfully, the only thing smoked in this movie is pole. Combining the two most homosexual things in straight America, the prison system and closeted homosexuality, I Love You, Phillip Morris is a darn entertaining and metaphorically potent rom-com—a genre so abysmally illiterate in its typically hetero reading o’ the Book of Love that no one is happier to forgive I Love You‘s minor failures than I. A single leaf is lost in a jungle. But rip that leaf off its branch, pin it to a white background, put a black frame around it, put that frame in an art gallery, and suddenly we see the leaf in a way we never could have. The image of life, otherwise suffocated in the dense, green noise of its natural milieu, art makes visible. In I Love You, Phillip Morris, the private world we all create with another when we fall in love, that leaf that is so common we cannot even see it, is thrust with gusto into the ostranenie Möbius strip of gayness and incarceration. Two experiences one could argue are as foreign to Hollywood’s audience in the same proportion as they are to the Floridians and Texans Carrey’s character continually swindles. But when Ewan McGregor is running through the prison yard he has sworn to avoid for fear of being brutalized by the stream of burly racial minorities pumping iron in the background, all so he can hook his fingers through the chain-links, look on with joy and despair through the myriad layers of fences still remaining between them and declare his love for Carrey publicly, who is being transferred to a different prison—while Nina Simone’s gritty “To Love Somebody” pounds in your ear—no matter how straight and out of prison you think you are, you suddenly do know what it’s like. To feel like no one else knows what it’s like. Which is what that moment in love feels like to anyone. The moment it is taken from you, you realize what it is.
The other surging pleasure in I Love You is seeing Jim Carrey con everybody, of course, and lie his way into riches and sneak his way out of prison after prison with increasingly clever and shocking schemes. Like all brilliant fools, his real prison is the self, the “I” the single, invisible bar of an inescapable cell. Minor failures mentioned earlier include a slow first act whose primary method of characterization is voiceover. Carrey’s character doesn’t really become dramatically real until too far into the film. As a result most of the early jokes fall flat. Even Ewan’s dumbstruck ingénue remains a bit one-dimensional. Jim Carrey’s smile is also becoming extremely denture-y. That’s not a criticism just an observation. But back to love. We fill our world with images of it. We live and breathe those images as if we’re all born to die in their prison. We’re all running through the prison yard, trying not to get raped, shouting the words that we hope will reshape it into the place we want it to be, through endless fences we pretend aren’t there. How easily our words pass through them!