It’s a genre that one would think is slowly moving into the realms of the obsolete, at least as far as Hollywood is concerned, with an increasing volume of mainstream movies featuring lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender characters in prominent roles. With such rainbow-tinged splashes onscreen, it would seem that the idea of the “gay movie” is giving way to stories where the alternate sexuality of the characters is merely incidental to the narrative.
And yet, as I looked back over the last decade, the 2 prime mainstream movies that jumped out at me were Brokeback Mountain and Milk. Where Brokeback gave us a heartbreaking, star-crossed gay romance, Milk chronicled the rise and tragic fall of the Mayor of Castro Street. Both constituted well-told, complex cinema, with sympathetic characters at the core, one drawing from the well of real life, the other, from fiction. But what both these movies, and a large proportion of other mainstream fare with queer characters at the fore in Hollywood feature, is the idea of the sexuality of the characters at the fulcrum of the narrative: sexuality as an issue so to speak, either personal, as in Brokeback, or political, as in Milk. And yes, that kind of cinema was necessary. It was absolutely integral, and served its purpose of dispelling the cloak of invisibility that seemed to remain permanently cast over the idea. But what about the next step, the point where we have a movie that gives us 2 A-listers in the lead, a queer romance to boot, but somehow manages to not actually be ABOUT the sexuality of the characters at all? Where we establish the queerness of the characters from the onset, issues be damned, and set off to spin a rollicking good yarn?
Well, Hollywood’s finally given us that story too. It’s called I Love you, Phillip Morris, it’s got Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor in the lead, it manages to check off the criteria I’ve named, and its — hold your breath- also very, very good.
Phillip Morris tells us the story of Steven Jay Russell (Jim Carrey) a gay man whose penchant for the decadent life finds him doing con jobs — lots of them. He’s good, but not good enough to avoid getting caught, and soon enough he’s in prison, and very much in love with fellow inmate Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor).
As their relationship progresses, the movie centres around Carrey’s increasingly desperate – and hilarious – attempts at getting the couple out of prison.
Successful prison breaks often prove to be rather ineffective when Russell is unable to control his inner con man even on the run.
Sounds like an incredulous tale? Here’s the best bit – it’s all true. Based on the slice of biography I Love You Phillip Morris: A True Story of Life, Love, and Prison Breaks penned by Steve McVicker, Phillip Morris goes to show that sometimes, life really is stranger ( and grander, and larger) than fiction.
Jim Carrey gets the somewhat tricky job of essaying the manipulative, near-sociopathic protagonist – and rises magnificently to the challenge. I’ve seen reviewers calling this his best performance, and while I wouldn’t go so far (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind anyone?), his manic energy really does carry the movie throw some of its more incredulous stretches. This is a character who’d be rather hard to like on paper, and yet, buoyed with Carrey’s winning charm and leavened with a few key sympathetic moments, you’re rooting for him to get what he wants – his way.
It helps that what he wants most of all is Phillip Morris, of course. Ewan McGregor is heartbreakingly endearing, an oft-wronged man who resolutely refuses to see the bad side in anyone (thus blinding him to his con man boyfriend), and gives a wonderfully restrained performance that balances out the thousand volt jolt Carrey constantly exudes.
For all the con games in the movie — and there are many — it comes down to being a bruisingly romantic tale, often funny, and finally very moving. And as mentioned earlier, there is the wonderful way the issue of sexuality is handled here – by not making it an issue at all. Except for one instance where Russell decides to take a few tentative steps back in the closet at his workplace, the universe of the movie is a joyously freewheeling one : starting from the matter-of-fact meet cute between Carrey and McGregor, through a montage of their prison-romance, down to the obligatory final impassioned speech : this is a story about two people in love, fighting to stay together inspite of the choices they’ve made, and inspite of each other.
And that really is a story for the ages – gay or straight.
As published in the New Indian Express - Sexualities.