To many members of the population, the name Philip Morris is synonymous with big tobacco, with the British-formed multi-national company a titan of the industry. Hence when a film entitled I Love You Phillip Morris comes around, you can be forgiven for thinking that you’re in for a satire along the lines of Jason Reitman’s first feature Thank You For Smoking, or a whistle-blower drama akin to Michael Mann’s Oscar-nominated The Insider. Yet the important thing to note in the title I Love You Phillip Morris, is that this Phillip spells his name with two ‘L’s, not one. For indeed this is not a film about cigarettes, but a film about a different man with the same name as the founder of one of the world’s largest tobacco operators – a small-time Southern criminal who became the cellmate and lover of infamous U.S. con artist, imposter and prison escapee Steven Jay Russell.
The name Steven Jay Russell may not be well known in Australia, however his escapades are well worth hearing about. In the directorial debut of Bad Santa scribes Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, it features the underrated dramatic talents of Jim Carrey (in a performance on par with his brilliant BAFTA-nominated turn in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind) as Russell and The Men Who Stare At Goats star Ewan McGregor as Morris, in a true story of life, love, and prison breaks (adapted from Steve McVicker’s aptly-titled biography “I Love You Phillip Morris: A True Story of Life, Love, and Prison Breaks”). As Carrey’s twangy narration informs, Russell was once an avid church-goer, police officer, and happily married father living on the U.S. East Coast. However, a mid-life realisation about his sexuality set him on the path to Miami amidst a complete transformation of his lifestyle and outlook, and the expensive upkeep of his new life and boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro, Che) drove him to commit fraud and commence a new life as a con man. Inevitably ending up in prison, he encounters Morris, with their attraction mutual but unsupported by the penitentiary system. What follows is a rollercoaster ride of schemes, dreams and the path to living around the law, guided by Russell’s love for one Phillip Morris – a love that prison bars could not contain, and society could not temper.
Given its real life origins (subject to legal woes) and controversial subject matter (including a number of apparently graphic sex scenes in the original cut), I Love You Phillip Morris struggled to secure distribution in the U.S. despite receiving significant acclaim at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. Indeed, it is still struggling for release in a number of international markets, and at the date of writing seems destined to play film festivals in Australia before making its way to DVD. This lack of attention is unfortunate, for I Love You Phillip Morris is simply terrific. Featuring the best work from Carrey and McGregor in years (and a reminder of Carrey’s phenomenal and chameleonic talents when given the right material), a smart and witty script adapted by the directors from McVicker’s novel, and a cracking pace that neither hurries nor languishes, it combines the highlights of the heist and escape genres with dashes of dark humour and irreverence to create a film best described as a wicked delight. Slick but not sleazy, hip but not just for hipsters, I Love You Phillip Morris is a traditional love story with a definite modern twist, in a must-see feature devoid of genericism but full of heart.
I Love You Phillip Morris screens again on Thursday 5th August 2010 at the Melbourne International Film Festival.