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'I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS': Ewan McGregor and Jim Carrey star.
  • 'I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS': Ewan McGregor and Jim Carrey star.

If you're unfamiliar with the controversy surrounding the outlandish gay romcom "I Love You, Phillip Morris," a little background: The film was completed in 2009 and debuted at Cannes that same year. Even though it stars A-list actors Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor and Leslie Mann, it took the better part of 2010 to secure U.S. distribution because, as a gay love story, it contains considerable gay sex.

Carrey stars as Steven Russell, a good ol' boy Virginian, a cop who plays organ in the church choir and prays to Jesus every night with his adorable wife, Debbie (Mann). They have a daughter and life is as sweet as their cloying Southern accents. Steven is actually a down-low homosexual, though, and abruptly comes to embrace this fact after suffering a near-lethal car wreck, presumably post-tryst. Curiously enough, with his new lavish gay lifestyle also comes a life of grifting — everything from credit card to insurance fraud. If the story weren't based on "actual events," one might find something uncomfortably homophobic about this plot twist.

Upon his inevitable incarceration, Steven encounters the lithe and precious Phillip Morris (McGregor), with whom he immediately and fairly implausibly falls in love. Despite being housed in different units, their courtship persists through secret love letters, until Steven mysteriously pulls some strings to be transferred to Phillip's cell. It's practically gay heaven until Steven ends up back on the outside.

Carrey's physical antics are put to good use in the spare moments of slapstick and character shape-shifting that comes part and parcel with being a professional conman. McGregor's fey bearing and gentleness eventually give way to some hard-edged emotion — but these are skills we never doubted from these folks. Their romance ultimately becomes believable, even if some of the film's stunts are hardly so.

Most of the couple's sincere, tender moments are tempered with almost cruel humor — particularly a scene where Steven and Phillip slow dance to Johnny Mathis in their cell while the guards tase their loyal neighbor — a laugh/cry technique found in most mainstream romcoms.

In fact, almost everything about this film is structured as commercially as a Sandra Bullock movie; it just happens to have a gay theme. If not for audience groans during every glimpse of gay sex onscreen, one might not be able to tell the difference.

The apprehensions of distributors about "I Love You, Phillip Morris" appearing stateside seem a little overblown. Ostensibly, if an audience can stomach the crass homo-frat humor of a Judd Apatow flick, then they can handle this film. The only divergence being that this movie, while telling the tale of a troubled relationship, is perhaps more straightforwardly about love.

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