Sunday, January 8, 2012

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa | I Love You Phillip Morris

a desperate foolishness by Douglas Messerli

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (writers and directors, based on a book by Steven McVicker) I Love You Phillip Morris / 2009, USA 2010

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's comic-drama, I Love You Phillip Morris, is hardly a great film, but in its mix of Catch Me If You Can and Dog Day Afternoon (with perhaps a little of Raising Arizona tossed in) it's a kind of delightful mulligan stew about gay love.

      Like Catch Me If You Can and Dog Day Afternoon, this film was based, for the most part on true events. A former policeman, church choir director, and married father of a young girl, Steven Jay Russell (a less than usually frantic Jim Carrey) apparently lives out a desperately closeted life in Virginia and later in Texas, enjoying a close, if sexually unsatisfying, relationship with his wife and good social relationships with his neighbors—until one day, after a car crash, he comes to an epiphany that he was dissatisfied with life. He leaves his wife and child and moves to Miami, find a boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro), and begins living an openly gay life. Unfortunately, as he explains, the gay lifestyle is quite expensive, so Russell begins the life of a con-man, soon discovered and sent to prison.

     Russell quickly develops in prison the same kind of skills to manipulate the system as he did on the outside. When he meets a young, innocent fellow prisoner, Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor) he immediately falls in love. Although Morris is being relocated to another part of the prison, Russell finds secret ways to keep in communication and before long has been transferred to Morris' cell, where their love is quickly consummated and they enter a deep-committed relationship, Russell promising to protect the younger Morris.

     After Russell pays for others to beat a screaming inmate next to their cell ("That is the most romantic thing anyone ever did for me. I love you so much," gushes Morris) and Morris arranges to have romantic music played late at night so the two can dance, authorities separate the couple, sending Russell to another prison. The breakup is devastating as Morris rushes into the prison yard—where he has previously been terrified to enter—to scream out his love for Russell, Russell responding with film's title: "I love you Philip Morris."

     It is only here that movie really begins, with Russell conning his way through system after system, becoming a lawyer so that he can free his lover, accomplishing small check frauds and false bodily injury claims, and, finally, finagling a job as a CFO for a large corporation, where he embezzles millions of dollars just to support Morris in a life style he "deserves." Indeed there is a sense throughout the film of Morris' belief in entitlement, perhaps because he has been previously so closeted, but also out of a righteous sense that the two deserve to live their lives in joyful celebration of their love. And to be fair, his cons actually make his company millions of dollars as well, he simply taking half of what he illegally raises by investing temporary payments into short-term accounts. His theft is petty when compared, one imagines, to the real CFOs and Wall Street business sharks. Yet time and again, Russell is caught and returned to prison. Through various clever ploys he escapes time after time (in real life Russell was described as the Houdini of prisoners), using the telephone with his skillful ability to convince unwitting authorities, several attempts at suicide, costumes, and other manipulations of the system to free himself and return to Morris.

     When Russell is arrested after his business fraud, however, Morris is furious with the lies and deceit of his friend:

                     From the moment we met, you did nothing but lie. Our whole
                     relationship, just lies. I'm such an asshole. You took advantage
                     of me, just like all the others. You were supposed to protect me.
                     But you did nothing but make a fool out of me. And you expect
                     me to love you? How can I love you. I don't even know who you
                     are. You know what's sad? I don't even think you know who you
                     are. So how am I supposed to love someone that don't even exist,
                     you tell me.

     The two, however, remain in love, Morris ultimately returned to prison as an accomplice with Russell. While recognizing the truth of Morris' comments, Russell plots yet one more large con so that he free himself and work to free Morris. Losing vast amounts of weight and forging prison hospital records, he is declared to have AIDS and, as he grows more and more ill (largely acted), he sent to hospice to die. Morris hears of his near death, and by telephone reaffirms his love, his recognition that all the crazy things Russell has done have been, at heart, for him and their relationship. They are, as they agree, fools for love.

     The final irony is that the man who does not exist dies—so Morris is told. But when Russell shows up as a lawyer to visit Morris in prison, his lover punches him in the face. Russell again pleas:

                   Wait, listen. I just came here to tell you one thing, and that's it.
                   You don't have to take me back. I just want to say one thing. I know
                   you think that we were nothing but a lie, but underneath all those
                   lies, there was always something that was real. I thought about what
                   you said to me. You said you don't know who I am, but I know now. I
                   know who I am. I'm not a lawyer, I'm not a CFO, I'm not a cop,
                   I'm not an escape artist. Those Steven Russells are dead. Now all
                   that's important is the man that loves you. And if you could see that,
                   believe it, I promise I'll never be anything else ever again.

Morris' response: "How do I know you're not bullshitting me again?" is answered with the inevitable: "You don't."

     In fact Russell does try, as a lawyer, to free his friend once again, but in the process is recognized. This time he is returned to prison for 140 years, and the real Steven Jay Russell remains in prison, in complete isolation, today.

     Morris was released. But in the last scene Russell is still dreaming of his friend, imagining himself running from the guards in a final race toward love.

     What began as a comedy has ended in a kind tragedy. For the man who sought so much out of his life has ended up with absolutely nothing. Whether or not he "deserves" better, the American system of justice will not forgive such a desperate foolishness.

Los Angeles, January 7, 2011

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