hidden gem: i love you philip morris

by rebecca wynne-walsh

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I Love You Philip Morris is the quirky, under-appreciated film, sure to one day become a cult classic, that should have been ticked off your Netflix watch list ages ago. The film follows Jim Carrey’s conman Steven Russell who, while incarcerated, falls madly in love with fellow prisoner Philip Morris, played by Ewan McGregor in one of his most nuanced performances in years. Netflix is plagued with complaints that its television content outranks its films. But, nestled amongst the B-level rom-coms and horrors sits a true hidden gem. I Love You Philip Morris is a love-story, a crime film, a comedy and a tragedy. It is also none of these things, defying definition in the best way, shamelessly playing with your emotions and assumptions. If there was ever a time for Netflix to shine it is in this run up to Christmas, and I Love You Philip Morris provides a viewing experience like none other.

A near-fatal car crash causes Steven to finally start living as an openly gay man. He embarks on a lavish lifestyle with his beautiful, with a capital B, new boyfriend Jimmy (Rodrigo Santoro) in Florida.  Steven’s flamboyant taste soon forces him to realise that “being gay is really expensive,” and so begins his long string of moneymaking schemes.

I Love You Philip Morris definitely gets a bit crazy at times, and the true but far-fetched story paired with Jim Carrey’s comedy chops might have undermined the more serious and genuinely heart-breaking moments the film has to offer. Thankfully, Ewan McGregor succeeds in grounding the outrageous antics of Jim Carrey with a gentle and timid performance. McGregor undoubtedly provides the emotional centre and stability for the film. Carrey’s calculating conman could have come across as quite cold without the warmth provided by McGregor. He falls head over heels in love with Carrey’s character without knowing the full extent of his fraudulent escapades. McGregor centres the film whenever it loses its focus amongst Carrey’s antics.

Even when we are treated to an extended sequence of Steven entertainingly fooling everyone he comes into contact with we are never allowed to treat this film as a screwball crime caper. Before long, Steven’s schemes catch up with him and Carrey’s trademark grin slips. At times like this we see Steven at his most frantic and we realise this film is so intent on keeping its audience laughing because if you don’t foreground the funny aspects of Steven’s story, the heartbreak would overwhelm them. His estrangement from his mother, the loss of a friend to AIDs and his inability to ever be truly himself combine to make Steven a devastating character beneath all his exuberance and charm. Every action Steven makes after meeting Philip is motivated by his need to care for Philip. Providing for Philip in excess sees him launder extortionate amounts of money and his need to be reunited with Philip sees him repeatedly escape from prison. With a character so incapable of telling the truth, Steven’s scenes with Philip are perhaps the only really honest moments in the film. Their relationship returns the narrative to one of a lost soul just trying to find a way to be with the only person he ever cared about.

It’s hard to imagine that the writers formerly best known for penning 2003’s Bad Santa (John Requa and Glenn Ficarra) could bring to life such a heartfelt romance. Naturally their penchant for the darker side of comedy comes through even in the sweetest moments. Steven sneaking Philip chocolates in a roll of toilet paper is undercut by Philip’s being diabetic, just as when Philip and Steven share their first dance it is to angry sounds of screaming inmates. All these features go towards highlighting the stranger than fiction nature of the film. Requa and Ficarra choose not to downplay the crazier aspects of their story but to make them larger than life, a fitting homage to their protagonist’s real life counterpart.

I Love You Philip Morris is an emotional rollercoaster of a film. It’s fast-paced, darkly comedic opening lures the audience into a false sense of security presenting itself as a somewhat offbeat screwball comedy. As the title would suggest, the entire narrative hinges on Steven’s relationship with Philip. From the moment they lock eyes, in true rom-com fashion, reaching for the same book, the film turns from a comedy to a whirlwind romance, unfortunately their relationship seems doomed from the start, undermined by Steven’s incessant duplicity. Nothing could emotionally prepare the viewer for the wild turn of events that brings the film to a close while also bringing it full circle.

That more people haven’t had the pleasure of watching I Love You Philip Morris is the real tragedy. This film is hilarious and heart wrenching, over-the-top yet incredibly subtle when the story needs nothing more. The performances of the supporting cast are perfect, fulfilling their purpose without adding unnecessary baggage to the film or pulling focus from Steven and Philip. Rodrigo Santoro’s as Steven’s ex-boyfriend and Leslie Mann as his ex-wife stand out in particular as characters that both establish and raise questions about Steven’s good character in a film that presents one of the strangest character studies ever to grace the screen. I Love You Philip Morris is wonderful by virtue of its weirdness. A real treat easily lost amongst the rabble. So the next time you log in to Netflix, instead of binging on Gossip Girl or watching another Louis Theroux documentary, turn on I Love You Philip Morris. Make yourself a cup of tea or, better still, crack open a bottle of wine, sit back and enjoy. This is a film that will see you join the eponymous Philip as he learns to love Steven, to hate him, and ultimately to find him to be an un-ignorable enigma – as apt a description for the film as it is for the lead character.