“Love sure is a funny thing,” Steven Russell drawls in a voiceover as he lies dying on a hospital gurney at the outset of I Love You Phillip Morris. “It makes you happy. It makes you sad. It makes you do all kinds of things.” Any and/or all of those sentiments could be nominated for “Understatement of the Year” awards in what is among the most jarringly, bizarrely sexually explicit two hours of tragidramedy ever put to film.
I Love You Phillip Morris chronicles the unlikely real-life odyssey of one Steven Russell. Ten minutes into it, we come to realize that two things shape Steven’s identity. One: He is gay. Two: He is a liar. Both are Olympic-level character traits. When we first meet him, though, neither is apparent. Steven is merely muddling through a pedestrian life. He plays piano and praises God at church. He’s married to an effusive, big-haired woman from Texas. He’s a conscientious police officer.
But we soon learn that Steven, who was adopted, only became a police officer in order to track down his biological mother (who rejects him when he finally finds her). His marriage and faith are shams, too, and a car crash after a homosexual tryst serves as the catalyst for him to confess his double life. “No more lies,” he says. “I’m gonna be the real me. Do what I want. F‑‑‑ who I want. … I’m gonna be a fag!”
Goodbye wife, daughter, church and badge. Hello Miami … and the most gay-centric lifestyle he can orchestrate. There’s only one problem, Steven says: “Being gay is really expensive.”
To finance his flamboyance, Steven initiates one con after another, faking accidents and collecting fat insurance checks. Eventually, though, his “luck” runs out as his sexual partner, Jimmy, dies of AIDS and Steven gets arrested.
What would seem to be the end of the story, however, is merely the beginning. In prison, Steven meets a new flame: Phillip Morris, a fragile, porcelain naïf who is as devoid of guile as Steven is shot through with it. Steven is smitten and determines to get both of them get out of prison. He determines to protect and provide for Phillip at any cost.
So his cons amp up to utterly unbelievable levels—except that they’re based on a true story. Steven becomes CFO of a Texas corporation. He poses as a lawyer. And after he and Phillip go back to prison for embezzling millions, Steven fakes his own death from AIDS … then returns to prison and court as Phillip’s lawyer in a bid to free him.
As more mainstream movies feature storylines revolving around homosexual characters in marriage-like relationships, disclaimers become more and more useful in this section of Plugged In’s reviews. So I’ll repeat the one I inserted into The Kids Are All Right: “Since the plot pivots on the unstated assumption that a long-term relationship between two same-sex partners is both normative and acceptable, any positivity surrounding that assumption has to be divorced from it.”
Steven can’t stop lying, scamming and conning. But he is genuinely compelled to care for Phillip. When Phillip fully realizes just how fake Steven’s entire professional life is, he leaves him. Phillip rightly tells Steven that he can’t be in a relationship with a person who’s so utterly deceptive. Phillip also states that he has no idea who Steven really is, and he suggests that Steven has no idea of his own identity underneath all the lies either.
Throughout the film, Steven remains in contact with his ex-wife, Debbie. She has forgiven him for abandoning her, and encourages him to give up his deceptive ways and to trust Jesus. (More on that in “Spiritual Content.”) Steven’s odd, ongoing relationship with Debbie is more than perfunctory, though. Even as he ignores (and at times mocks) her advice, he values the fact that she knows exactly who he is and still holds on to hope that he can change.
At one point, Steven sends Debbie and their daughter a huge sum of ill-gotten cash for Christmas. Debbie refuses it. Early on, Steven is shown tenderly and affectionately tucking his daughter in to sleep.
The film opens with Steven playing piano in church as the choir sings. Shortly thereafter, Steven and Debbie pray before bed. She thanks God for an assorted list of mundane blessings (finding coffee filters, a negative allergy test) before waxing effusive in her praise for Steven. “Thank you for this man, Jesus,” she says, before talking about how he passionately pursued her and how he’s brought her “eternal happiness.”
Debbie’s faith is little more than a satirical caricature, and her primary role in the movie is to generate a few fringe laughs. But she doesn’t know that, if you can split storytelling hairs that finely. To her, her faith is earnest and real, and she keeps talking about Jesus in conversations with Steven even after he leaves her. At one point she tells him that his choices are “not what the Lord wants.” Elsewhere she exhorts, “Jesus has a plan”—an assertion Steven mocks.
A cabbie asks Steven if he can share with him the “Word of Jesus Christ.” Then he begins by quoting Psalm 23:6: “Surely goodness and love shall follow me all the days of my life.” At the end of the ride, the driver is still reciting memorized verses to Steven.
Steven and Debbie have sex. Movement is seen under the covers while they carry on a casual conversation. Another scene pictures them kissing passionately in front of others.
The scene in which we learn that Steven is cheating on his wife with men happens immediately after that prolonged kiss. We see Steven’s bare chest and sexual movements, and we’re obviously meant to think he’s with Debbie again. Then the camera pans down to reveal that he’s with a man, who proceeds to shout profane, extraordinarily explicit instructions.
Steven and Phillip kiss several times. They hug, cuddle and are otherwise affectionate. Two instances of oral sex are implied by just-out-of-frame motion. Steven gives a detailed commentary on one of the encounters. The other concludes with one of the men spitting over the side of a boat.
There are also a half-dozen crude, graphic references to oral sex (mostly in the context of how to get what you want in prison). An explicit conversation revolves around sex-position preferences.
Voiceover narration from Steven tells us he’s always known he was a homosexual. And a flashback to his childhood shows him commenting on a cloud’s phallic shape. On a financial report, Steven sketches cartoonish penises. He goes to a gay dance club, where men dance provocatively in various states of undress.
Steven’s Corvette gets violently broadsided in an intersection, and he’s bloodied by the impact. Later, he jumps from a hospital rooftop, hoping to land in a full dumpster. He doesn’t. We see him unconscious in a pool of blood. A montage of Steven’s cons show him “accidentally” falling at various businesses.
Several brutal prison beatdowns get screen time. Steven tells a newcomer that you have to fight to earn respect. We hear an inmate being beaten by guards. To get to the infirmary, Steven has a fellow inmate strike him in the face, producing a deep cut. When Steven arranges for a man in Phillip’s cell block who makes awful noises at night to be horrifically beaten in order to shut him up, Phillip says that its the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for him.
A flashback shows Steven’s dad hitting his brother when the boy blurts out that Steven was adopted. Phillip slaps Steven twice.
More than 50 f-words. Ten s-words. A half-dozen abuses of God’s name and one of Jesus’. “Fag” or “faggot” are used six or seven times. Harsh slang terms reference male and female anatomy. About 25 other vulgarities include “a‑‑,” “a‑‑hole,” “b‑‑ch,” “d‑‑n” and “h‑‑‑.”
In a suicide attempt, Steven swallows prescription meds and ends up hospitalized. An attempt to escape custody involves him swiping Phillip’s insulin and shooting syringes full of it into himself in a police car (resulting in another hospitalization). Characters imbibe beer at a party and at a dance club. Another gathering features champagne.
Steven’s parents say they “adopted” him by giving his mother money in the hospital parking lot. When Steven tries to talk to his biological mother, telling her, “I forgive you,” she slams the door and yells, “Go away.” Steven waves her front door welcome mat and shouts, “This is a lie.”
And virtually everything Steven does after that point is a lie as well.
Guards may as well not even lock the door on Steven’s cell. He manipulates the system so efficiently that he can get virtually anything he wants from the outside, and he repeatedly finds ways to forge important legal documents that help him get out. Once, he uses ink from a ballpoint pen to dye his prison fatigues to look like a medical orderly … and then just walks free.
Steven’s most audacious con involves pretending to be dying of AIDS. He starves himself for months and forges documents suggesting that he has the disease. Then he gets himself transferred to a fictional AIDS research hospice, fakes his own death and shows up in court as Phillip’s lawyer.
It’s safe to say that Jim Carrey’s portrayal of Steven Russell is utterly unlike anything he’s ever done. And he’s played some pretty outrageous, erratic characters in his time.
Writing for the U.K.’s Daily Mail, reviewer Chris Tookey put it this way: “Some people will flinch at the gay sex scenes, which are surprisingly explicit for a mainstream comedy. But you don’t need to be homophobic to hate Carrey’s character. … This is the kind of desperately sad, would-be offbeat movie that A-list stars make only when their career is on the skids. It’s a horrifyingly misjudged mix of comedy and drama, caper flick and romance, middle-of-the-road Hollywood product and raunchy sex comedy. Jaw-droppingly unfunny and morally despicable, it doesn’t work on any level.”
Steven describes his motivation for becoming a cop—finding his birth mother—as “not right or moral.” That summary does double duty for the rest of the film.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews.