Cash and Carrey

Gay romantic comedy I Love You Phillip Morris inches toward the mainstream

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Jailbird lovebirds Steven (Jim Carrey) and Phillip (Ewan McGregor) bond behind bars
PHOTO BY PATTI PERRET

arts@sfbg.com

FILM You had to forgive most of the gay press for getting a little too excited over Brokeback Mountain (2005). Oh, no doubt it's a great movie, or that the Oscar going to the fraudulent Crash (2004) said less about that film's virtues than a skittishness that other movie stirred. But its excellence and commercial success induced widespread bouts of wishful thinking in the form of announcing new trends that never came to pass.

Five years later, there hasn't been another mainstream American film in which a gay relationship is taken seriously and granted central importance. (You could argue for The Kids Are All Right, but that's mostly a comedy, a big arthouse hit rather than even a modest mainstream one — and the fact remains that lesbians played by attractive actresses aren't nearly as threatening to the sanity, morality, masculinity, and private parts of many Americans as gay men.) Nor has a single major movie star come out as gay or bi, despite the hilarity induced by excuses for such police-intervention activities as "offering a ride" to transgender sex workers at 4 a.m. or getting mugged while "walking the dog" in a well-known cruising park (also at 4 a.m.). In all these regards, television has leapt well ahead of the big screen.

Given typically imitation-crazed Hollywood's failure to built on Brokeback's success — or see it as anything more than a fluke — the case of I Love You Phillip Morris is interesting for what it is and isn't. It is, somewhat by default, the biggest onscreen gay romance (not including foreign and indie productions, which are always ahead of the curve) since that earlier film, even if it is (again) primarily a comedy, and one whose true-story basis provides the leavening element of stranger-than-fiction curiosity. (Nobody's bothered by the gayness of movies like 2005's Capote because we accept the otherness of real people too famous and/or peculiar to be relatable.)

What Phillip Morris is not, however, is a Hollywood or even American film, all appearances to the contrary. Its financing was primarily French — presumably because there wasn't enough willing coin on this side of the Atlantic. Yes, not even for a comedy starring Jim Carrey. And for a while it didn't even look like Phillip Morris would be an American release, even after it had played (and done pretty well) virtually everywhere else, from Europe to Latin America to Southeast Asia to frikkin' Kazakhstan. The reasons (some legal) are unclear, but it seems pretty certain the aforementioned squeamishness around guys kissing and cuddling and diddling factored in — never mind that those guys are Carrey and Ewan McGregor.

Free at last, albeit without much fanfare, Phillip Morris proves to have a whole lot more in common with Steven Soderburgh's The Informant! (2009) — true tale turned farcical caper, to diverting if mixed results — than to tragic Brokeback, even if love runs a rather sad, thwarted course here, too. We meet Steven Jay Russell as an uber-perky all-American lad — a nascent Jim Carrey — perhaps permanently warped at age eight by the discovery that he's adopted. Nonetheless he proceeds along the road of dead-center normality, getting married (Leslie Mann manages to be both very droll and very Christian as Debbie), having kids, being a loveable Mr. Policeman, and fucking guys only on the QT.

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