Saturday, December 04, 2010

I Love You Phillip Morris
(Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, 2009)

Although I don’t recall seeing his name in the credits, the influence of Alan Ball’s feel-bad satire (American Beauty, television’s Six Feet Under) reeks throughout this bio-dramedy about Steven Jay Russell, a real-life con artist who became rather infamous in Texas for his multiple escapes from prison. Co-directed by Glenn Ficara and John Requa, the screenwriting team that penned the much better Bad Santa, this lacks the warmth that Terry Zwigoff knew how to bring to the coarsest of material and winds up being merely coarse in its equal hatred of religious fundamentalism and gay secularism alike (or at least the simplified caricatures of said sub-cultures that this film borrows from Ball’s American Beauty). Jim Carrey, playing the con artist who falls for a shy, sweet-natured inmate (Ewan McGregor, in the rather undeveloped title role), honorably tries to bring some life to the cynical atmosphere with the childish kitsch he learned in the Ace Ventura films. (I liked the playful, and likely improvised, exchange of “good nights” between him and daughter in an early scene.) The underlying problem is that it’s difficult to care about his character, much less empathize with him as much as Ficara and Requa do. It’s despicable enough that the filmmakers expect us to laugh when Carrey’s Russell has a mentally troubled inmate brutally beaten as a sign of affection for Morris, but when he uses one of his more elaborate cons to deceive not only Morris but also the film viewers themselves, it becomes clear that the filmmakers are aligning themselves with their cruel protagonist in a manner that I found condescending. By the end, the best they can offer in defense of Russell’s amoral behavior is the suggestion that his actions pissed off then-governor George W. Bush—a mundane plea for sympathy that is nevertheless guaranteed to flatter fashionable, comfortably middle-class liberals (probably the film’s target audience). Spielberg at least knew how to have fun with the mechanics of conning when he tackled similar material in Catch Me If You Can; Ficara and Requa, unfortunately, are too busy satirizing every scene with their glib worldview to even provide an interesting (much less believable) depiction of its own subject matter. All in all, one of the more unpleasant films I’ve seen in a long time.

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