Film review – I Love You Phillip Morris (2009)

1 April 2011
I Love You Phillip Morris: Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) and Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor)

Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) and Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor)

Relying on the fact that the events about to be shown seem too outlandish to be believed, I Love You Phillip Morris begins by telling the audience, ‘This really happened. It really did’. And yet, the story that unravels is essentially a variation on the quest for identity and purpose narrative. Jim Carrey has now played several leading characters who are searching for meaning and authenticity in films such as The Truman Show, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Majestic. As Steven Russell in I Love You Phillip Morris he is a man who has spent his entire life conforming to an ideal of who he should be and as a result his life has become such a lie that he can only function as a high stakes con artist. Due to serious childhood abandonment issues he first pretends to play the part of a good conservative, middle-suburbia, Christian family man while hiding his attraction to other men. However, when he does openly live as a gay man he adopts a stereotypically homosexual persona and as a result develops a comically expensive lifestyle. It is not until his first stretch in prison for his frauds that he finally finds something that gives his life meaning – his love for fellow inmate Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor).

Leaving aside the extent in which the premise of I Love You Phillip Morris is essentially very sad and serious, this is overall an extremely funny and at times very sweet romantic comedy. Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, whose most notable previous credit was as the writers on Bad Santa, I Love You Phillip Morris possesses an extremely wicked sense of humour. Ficarra and Requa have that rare quality of being able to successfully generate laughs from potentially offensive subject matter without pandering to lowest common denominator bigotry. They can do jokes about homophobia, gay stereotypes, violence in prison and AIDS because despite the extreme personalities and absurd situations, the characters are treated with respect.

I Love You Phillip Morris: Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) and Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor)It also helps that both Carrey and McGregor deliver such excellent performances as people who are both so incredibly in love with each other. The dynamic with Carrey as extroverted and almost manic with McGregor as naive and very sweet works very effectively. It’s clear what both the characters see in each other and Carrey and McGregor have real chemistry. In between the laughs are several very tender and touching moments. I Love You Phillip Morris does pull the rug out from underneath the audience in several moments when the mood of the film changes. The film manages to walk a line between hilarity and tragedy throughout, with unexpected moments of sadness that are not undermined by the comedy surrounding them. Ficarra and Requa play with expectations right up until the very end and their final surprise is audacious, hilarious, oddly touching and brilliantly delivered.

Distribution and exhibition woes may have prevented I Love You Phillip Morris from having the full cultural impact that it could have had, which is a shame because it is such an impressive film. Steven’s quest for his true identity through his love for Phillip is the main theme running throughout the film but closer to the surface it is a fast paced con artist film (not too dissimilar to Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can) combined with a warm love story and lots of wonderful black humour.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – The Ghost Writer (2010)

27 August 2010
The Ghost Writer: Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) and The Ghost (Ewan McGregor)

Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) and The Ghost (Ewan McGregor)

Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) is a controversial former British Prime Minister who in order to complete his autobiography requires the assistance of a skilled ghost writer, especially since his last one died mysteriously. Enter the unnamed writer (Ewan McGregor) who is flown to Lang’s remote, wind-swept, compound-like island home. As the writer attempts to learn about Lang, some very disturbing secrets start to surface, forcing the writer to reassess his loyalties as choosing the wrong side may jeopardise his life.

This political thriller is a return to the more straightforward genre filmmaking that director Roman Polanski has previously indulged in with successful films like Frantic and less successful films such as The Ninth Gate. For the most part it is an atmospheric and intriguing film but it does suffer from a slightly naff ending and some very stodgy dialogue. Also, the acting at times comes dangerous close to being wooden. Nevertheless, mystery fans will find plenty to enjoy about The Ghost Writer and Polanski does an excellent job evoking an increasing sense of paranoia and danger. The very final shot is certainly as skilfully composed as anything he has done before.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 361, 2010

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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MIFF 2010 Diary: Part 6

1 August 2010

One of the two things I do each year to take a break from the intense experience that MIFF can be is to see a non-MIFF film; something very B-grade or very Hollywood. This year I went to the media screening of Salt, which didn’t really deliver the guilty pleasure respite that I was hoping for so was a bit of a waste of time. My other break-from-MIFF activity is to attend some kind of live performance and this year I went to see Stephen Fry, which was one the most entertaining and inspiring nights I have experienced for a long time. The wisdom and stories that Fry shared actually complemented MIFF, and the types of films that such a festival champions, as he is so passionate about culture, intellectual curiosity and the importance of self expression.

I Love You Phillip Morris

I Love You Phillip Morris

Back to the festival. On Friday night I saw I Love You Phillip Morris, which is essentially a con-man film, with some similarities to Catch Me If You Can, but with a warm love story at its heart and a very wicked sense of humour. Jim Carrey gives a terrific performance as the extroverted con-man who does what he does to fund the lifestyle he shares with his sweet and shy partner Phillip Morris, played beautifully by Ewan McGregor. Carrey and McGregor have incredibly chemistry and are completely convincing as a couple. You will gasp at some of the subject matter that this film draws laughs from but that’s part of its brilliance. The distributors in Australia and other countries who are nervously sitting on this film for whatever reason (surely in 2010 they’re not worried about the gay content?) need to give this film the wide release that it deserves or pass on the distribution rights to a company that can handle a film like this.

[EDIT 1/4/2011: Read a full review of I Love You Phillip Morris]

The new film by Francis Ford Coppola, Tetro, is about estranged brothers reuniting in Buenos Aires. Tetro is gorgeously shot in crisp black-and-white, full depth-of-field cinematography. For the most part it is a steadily paced drama with faint echoes of John Cassavetes in the way it gives a sense of vibrancy to the everyday lives of the people who occupy the various locations the film is set in. However, the final section of the film moves it from drama to melodrama so that ultimately a very good film is let down by a flabby ending. Vincent Gallo is great in the lead role, demonstrating just how photogenic he is and just how suited he is to playing such disagreeable characters.

The Illusionist

The Illusionist

Many people will check out the animated feature The Illusionist because it is directed by Sylvain Chomet of The Triplets of Belleville fame. That is a good enough reason in itself but my own interest was more it do with the fact that it is based on an unproduced Jacques Tati script. It is only in the past five years that Tati has become one of my favourite filmmakers and I was delighted by how well The Illusionist captures both the look of Tati’s films and his favourite theme of how modernity is sweeping away a way of life that was simpler and purer. The animated character of the magician looks and moves exactly like Tati, provoking plenty of laughs. The defining aspect of Tati’s onscreen persona is the idea that he can’t fit into the world around him. This facilitates lots of great physical comedy but also the incredibly sad nostalgic sentiment that the time of old-school entertainers is over. The Illusionist is a wonderful and a fitting tribute to the great Jacques Tati.

[EDIT 18/8/2011: Read a full review of The Illusionist]

I went to see Welcome to the Rileys mainly because of James Gandolfini and he certainly gives a fine performance as a man who is still coming to terms with the death of his teenage daughter. He befriends and takes is upon himself to look after an underage stripper played by Kristen Stewart, in a role even grittier than the one she played in The Runaways. When Melissa Leo’s character enters the narrative more substantially, the film gets even more interesting as it explores the situation of a middle-class America couple wanting to ‘save’ an underprivileged teenager. Welcome to the Rileys has some similarities to The Blind Side, as both films explore a similar scenario, but Welcome to the Rileys is more complex, less conservative, less offensive and an overall far superior film.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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