When a romantic comedy opens with kids looking for shapes in the clouds and one young lad spots a "wiener" — and he's not talking hotdogs — it's a pretty good bet that a conventional love story is not going to follow.
That is most definitely the case in the audacious and wildly out-of-control farce of "I Love You Phillip Morris," with Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor as a match made in prison. And, trust me, that is a long way from heaven.
Though the film, and its many whimsical visual and musical flourishes, evokes a kind of warped funhouse effect, this is a true-life tale of a small-time lawman turned con artist and the lengths he goes to for the man of his dreams. So it was never going to be an easy project.
But John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, veteran writing partners with the coal-in-your-stocking fun of "Bad Santa," their best work to date, wanted to give it a try and are making their feature directing debut as well. It's clear from first frame to last that the filmmakers decided to go broad, very broad, with a story that swings between hysterical, hyper-sexual, bizarre, surprisingly tender and just plain awful. This is one mixed bag of a movie.
Based on the novel by Steve McVicker, "Phillip Morris" follows the strange saga of Steven Russell (Carrey), which begins in Texas in the mid-'80s. Steven is a small-town deputy living a conventional life complete with a wife, Debbie ( Leslie Mann), and child, singing in the church choir and telling bad jokes to anyone who will listen.
There's a horrific car accident, an "I'm gay" epiphany and, like a chameleon, Steven sheds the first of the many skins he will lose over the course of the film. He trades Texas for Miami, strolling South Beach's boulevards in blinding white polyester with his first great love, Jimmy ( Rodrigo Santoro). Jimmy's AIDS-related death and some questionable business deals put Steven in a tailspin that soon sends him to jail and into the arms of the shy, Southern sweetness of Phillip Morris (McGregor).
Amped up by director of photography Xavier Grobet's eye-popping Technicolor style (at times it outshines the performances), here's where things really get crazy as Steven concocts one outlandish scheme after another to stay with Phillip. His actions lead to an endless spin-cycle of escape and incarceration, sometimes legal, often not, with Steven brilliantly inventive at outsmarting the penal system. On the outside, he has a Midas touch too, a good thing, since he wants to give Phillip the world. All Phillip wants is someone he can trust. Lovers' quarrels and longer jail sentences ensue.
Beyond the stereotypes and clichés — Steven and Jimmy have matching Chihuahuas, Steven and Phillip have matching cars — the movie doesn't really have much to say about being gay, being in love or being in prison, beyond making the point that if you're jailed in Texas, you've got a better-than-even chance of escaping.
But the biggest problem is Carrey himself. The actor has always been a tough nut to crack. Sometimes his goofball sensibility is exactly what's called for, whether it's in the lowbrow "Dumb & Dumber" or the far more clever "Liar Liar." When he's stepped away from all that manic energy, he's capable of delivering something wonderful, like the heartbroken man clinging to love in the memory poem "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" or the unsuspecting reality TV star in "The Truman Show."
Though Carrey seems to be giving his heart to Steven's romance with Phillip, and pouring a lot of sweat equity into very vigorous sex, he never gets beyond his Jim Carrey-ness to let us discover the character. As for McGregor, the film will likely be little more than a footnote in his career.
What's worrisome, though, is the subtext. "I Love You Phillip Morris" too often plays as an apology, as if the directors are trying to compensate for the gay love story by pushing everything over the top. Were they hoping all the silliness would make it more palatable for the mainstream? I thought we were beyond that.