Coming out party
Jim Carrey is at his best in this zany – but true – hedonistic comedy, writes Donald Clarke
THE WORLD is divided into those who find Jim Carrey the life and soul of the party and those who suspect that his hysterical mugging is evidence of some hidden (though not that hidden) seam of poisonous insecurity. Very occasionally, some bright director finds a way of channelling that desperation into an unsettling performance. One thinks of Man in the Moon and the less celebrated but equally interesting The Cable Guy. In short, Carrey is at his best when, rather than playing a crazy, crazy guy, he plays a guy who is actually crazy.
Which brings us to this diverting, if somewhat disorganised, comedy from members of the Bad Santa team. Jim plays a Texan police officer named Steven Russell – a family man with a shiny wife and gleaming children – who plays the organ in church and washes the car on Sunday.
We have seen enough contemporary movies to know that any such idyllic façade is sure to conceal a whole spectrum of secrets and lies. Sure enough, it transpires that Steven is gay and, though deeply fond of his wife and children, spends the odd afternoon astride a male neighbour.
He is also adopted. Following a disappointing encounter with his birth mother, Steven decides to stop – fine words, rarely honoured – living a lie and moves to one of the gayest corners of Miami’s South Beach. He falls into an empty world of primary coloured sports cars, thumping disco music and bejewelled Rolex timepieces. “Being gay is really expensive,” he remarks as another YSL sweater finds its way into his wardrobe.
Considering that the lead actors and directors are straight, I Love You Phillip Morris could (if there were a self-righteous bore to hand) be accused of peddling negative gay stereotypes. Yet the film-makers’ affection for the characters and guilty complicity in their hedonistic materialism is never in question.
Anyway, it all ends in disaster when Steven, working a suspiciously humble job, is arrested for fraud and sent to an austere prison where, as he eventually explains to various newcomers, the only currencies are tobacco and oral sex. There he encounters a delicate, apparently saintly gay prisoner named, yes, Phillip Morris (an adequate Ewan McGregor) and the film really gets into its stride.
Based on a genuinely astonishing true story, I Love You Phillip Morris charts its hero’s endless efforts to prove his affection for his lover by repeatedly escaping from prison and, despite no formal training, forging hugely successful, dizzyingly fraudulent careers in a number of well-paid professions.
His final successful escape (the details of which we won’t spoil) is so implausibly audacious that it can only have its basis in the facts. Sure enough, a glance at Russell’s biography confirms that the trickster did, indeed, achieve the apparently impossible.
The film is desperately in need of some structure. Once the governing rhythms have struck up, the story resolves itself into a loosely ordered series of ever more preposterous japes. We have the real Mr Russell to thank for the fact that every one of these adventures is loaded with laughs, but it becomes hard to escape the suspicion that one is watching a sophisticated sketch show.
Nonetheless, thanks to a well-sustained screwball tone and an impressively layered performance by Carrey, the film does manage to retain attention throughout. Should we even mention how cheering it is to see a comedy featuring gay characters appearing in multiplexes and on the side of buses?
Too late. We’ll make sure to take it as read next time.
Gay love in the big house: Ewan McGregor and Jim Carrey in I Love You Phillip Morris