Saturday, August 28, 2010

They're Doing the Time of Their Lives (I Love You Phillip Morris)

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's I Love You Phillip Morris had its world premiere at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, but its release has been pushed back several times and it's now tentatively scheduled to open in early December. Having seen the film (which was surprisingly easy to download), it's easy to see why a major studio would be hesitant about distributing it, and not simply because Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor play a gay couple, though it's impossible to explain why without ruining the film's best surprises. If you've seen Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa (2003), written by Ficarra and Requa, you know that these guys are fearless and uncompromising in their comic vision, and this film is even more audacious (and more political) than Bad Santa, which I wouldn't have thought possible before seeing the film.

The film begins with a title informing us, "This really happened," and if you look up Steven Jay Russell on Wikipedia (although I wouldn't recommend doing that until after you see the movie), you'll find that the film's most outrageous elements are based on fact. Russell was a deputy police officer and family man who became a con artist, and managed to talk his way into a job as the chief financial officer of North American Medical Management, where he embezzled thousands of dollars. (In the film, it's hundreds of thousands, and the exaggeration of this crime--and by extension, the swanky lifestyle the money was used to furnish, which the movie simultaneously parodies and celebrates--seems intended, paradoxically, to make Russell seem like more of a hero. If he stole less we probably wouldn't like him as much.) But what's really wild is how Russell was able to escape from prison repeatedly using various ruses and disguises.

The story, told largely in flashback, begins with Russell (Carrey) on a hospital bed waiting to die. In the film, as in life, he was put up for adoption by his biological mother, and while working as a cop, he used police resources to track her down. According to the movie's psychological shorthand, because he never knew his mother, Russell doesn't know who he is, and is therefore condemned to living a lie. After suffering a near-fatal car accident, Russell decides to come out as a gay man (as he's wheeled into the ambulance, he bellows, "I'm gonna be a fag! Faggot!"), only to discover subsequently that, "being gay is expensive," and turning to crime in order to support his lifestyle. In 1995, while doing time for insurance fraud, Russell met Phillip Morris (McGregor), whom the film makes out to be the love of his life. Their relationship is the film's weakest element, functioning merely as a motivation for Russell to steal and escape from prison. While the moms in Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right (2010) are more rounded characters who happen to be gay, for Russell, being gay is his whole identity: The only thing he knows about himself for sure is that he loves Phillip Morris. That said, I Love You Phillip Morris is indisputably the better film; it's more accomplished in terms of storytelling and craftsmanship, and unlike Cholodenko's film, it's actually funny.

Spoilers begin here.

If I had to guess why the studio seems so reluctant to release the film, I would assume that it's the part of the story where Russell pretends to be dying of AIDS in order to escape from prison, which is surely the most audacious segment of the whole movie on a number of levels--and yes, this really happened. Up till this point, our range of knowledge has been limited exclusively to Russell's point of view as he narrates his life story in flashback, although the filmmakers have already shown a taste for self-conscious narration. Earlier, for instance, after establishing that Russell enjoys (or appears to enjoy) having sex with his wife Debbie (Leslie Mann), when we subsequently see him thrusting away at some one off camera, it comes as a surprise when a man's head pops into the frame. In the narration, Russell says, "Did I mention I was gay?" as if it had simply slipped his mind to mention it, but Ficarra and Requa are actually being very clever about how and when they reveal certain things, and what information they withhold, so as to make the revelations about Russell's character even more surprising, and as viewers, we can't help but be aware of how skillfully they're manipulating us. (I'm reminded of that quote by Alfred Hitchcock, where he said that he wanted to play the audience like a piano.)

Similarly, it's only after Russell falls in love with Morris, and when he's arrested for embezzlement that we get a flashback (actually, a flashback within a flashback) in which we see Russell's previous boyfriend, Jimmy (Rodrigo Santoro), dying of AIDS. In prison, Morris, who's angry with Russell for making him an unwitting accomplice (which requires him to be very, very stupid, considering Russell's lavish spending), says that he never wants to see him again, and the narration confirms that this was the last time Russell ever saw him. Needless to say, this is a particularly black period in Russell's life, so when we see him refusing to eat in the prison cafeteria, throwing up in his toilet, and then a shot of him lying on his bed, so thin that his rib cage is visible, one might conclude that he's attempting to kill himself by starvation. It's only then that a prison doctor informs him he has AIDS, which brings us back to the beginning, with Russell on a hospital bed waiting to die. At this point, the point of view shifts to Morris, who learns from another inmate that Russell has died. So when Russell then turns up at the prison, alive and healthy, impersonating Morris' lawyer, and Morris punches him in the face, we're in complete sympathy with his disgust at Russell. But, as Morris makes contact, Ficarra and Requa employ a freeze frame, and Russell takes over again as narrator, explaining how he did it over flashbacks to earlier events, filling in the gaps in our knowledge, in which we're encouraged to marvel at his daring and ingenuity in pulling it off, leading up to the unforgettable punch line, "And for all that time, all those doctors, all those nurses, all those facilities--not one of them ever thought to give me an AIDS test."

Ultimately, Russell's numerous prison escapes proved so embarrassing for the state of Texas, and then-Governor George W. Bush, that he was handed an absurd 144 year sentence, despite being a non-violent offender. There's now a campaign to have Russell released, and the film is clearly designed to generate sympathy for his cause, even if it's a little too clear-eyed about him to function as simple propaganda. As in Charles Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (1947), the film goes out of its way to make the people that Russell steals from as unsympathetic as possible. For instance, his decision to embezzle funds from the North American Medical Management was motivated less by greed than by his hatred of the stupid and racist people he was working for. Furthermore, according to the film, his scheme of investing medical cheques for the short time the company had them, and then pocketing half of the interest for himself, was actually making the company money. All things considered, Russell's crimes seem positively benign compared to the hucksters on Wall Street, who caused a global economic recession while raking in billions in bonuses for the good work they were doing.

Despite their audacity in asking viewers to sympathize with Russell, Ficarra and Requa are still operating within the bounds of traditional Hollywood filmmaking, and I know that I won't see a better crafted studio comedy this year (although Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World [2009] is more formally audacious in its Stephen Chow-derived live action-cartoon silliness, in terms of dramaturgy, none of the characters have the slightest shading or nuance, and the whole enterprise runs out of steam in the closing stretch), or for that matter, a funnier one. It's really, really funny. Seriously.

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