They may not vote that way at the polls, but when it comes to casting their ballots at the box office, mainstream audiences love stories that bend sex and gender expectations. When Adam Sandler pretended to be gay, as he did in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, the movie became a big, fat blockbuster. Same for Robin Williams' turn as a gay man pretending to be straight in The Birdcage. Put Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence or Tyler Perry in a housedress, and audiences demand sequels. So why does Hollywood seem so nervous about seeing Jim Carrey go gay?
I Love You Phillip Morris features the most daring role of the cheeky Ace Ventura star's career. As real-life Texas jailbreaker Steven Russell (who flew the coop four times, always making his getaway on Friday the 13th), Carrey plays a slippery con artist who's honest about just one thing: his love for his fellow jailbird turned same-sex soulmate (Ewan McGregor, affecting an irresistible wide-eyed-Southern-boy routine in the title role).
Phillip Morris was supposed to hit U.S. theaters this week. Instead, the far-from-conventional romantic comedy has been pushed back on the shelf (or into the closet?), raising doubts over whether it will be released this year at all. This is just the latest setback for perennially naughty Bad Santa screenwriters John Requa and Glenn Ficarra's must-see directorial debut. Phillip Morris was previously scheduled to open March 26, and before that, Valentine's Day (which would've made for wild counter-programming to Garry Marshall's all-star soufflé).
Contrary to rumors that have circulated since the first delay, Phillip's disappearing act has nothing to do with the “gay stuff,” though the movie's subversive treatment of that subject is what makes it such essential viewing for comedy fans and card-carrying GLAAD members alike. Yes, the unapologetically gay subject matter made mainstream distributors nervous when the film premiered at Sundance in 2009, but the four-minutes-tighter version that played Cannes sacrificed none of its unlikely love story, and when the filmmakers test-screened the two versions to see which one average moviegoers preferred, the crowds embraced them both (in the end, they put 80 seconds back in). And in Europe, where it has already opened in most countries, Phillip Morris has earned upward of $10 million.
So what's the holdup? After the big boys chickened out, a tiny company called Consolidated Pictures Group, best known for managing the 2008 release of surprise indie hit Bottle Shock, stepped up with an offer. It promised to support the movie with a hefty ad campaign, but couldn't deliver, so the release date kept slipping. Now CPG and the filmmakers are arguing over who has the rights to release Phillip Morris in the U.S., and until they reach an agreement, you can't see it.
Though the outrageous content may not have much to do with Morris' current fix, studios were none too keen to green-light “a gay prison-escape movie” when the filmmakers first tried pitching it around town. “As you can imagine, it was not well received,” Requa recalls. Miramax (which owned rights to Houston Press reporter Steven McVicker's true-crime book about Russell's colorful exploits) effectively told them, “Love it, but could you write Phillip Morris as a woman?” Instead, the pair sent the script to Jim Carrey, whose interest helped convince Luc Besson (best known as the director/producer of action fantasies like La Femme Nikita and The Fifth Element) to finance the project. According to Requa, “The only thing that was easy was getting Jim.” Carrey wanted an established director. Openly gay Gus Van Sant agreed, until his long-gestating Harvey Milk project hit the fast track, at which point Carrey made his riskiest decision yet, trusting the writers with their own material.
When someone like Sean Penn plays a gay martyr such as Milk (a role everyone from Daniel Day-Lewis to Robin Williams once courted), Academy Awards follow. For Oscar voters, Penn's empathetic (and somewhat patronizing) gesture stirs the same part of their hearts impressed by his earlier I Am Sam performance. Put Carrey in flamboyant Versace shirts and fishnet skivvies for a raunchy, irreverent comedy, and it's a different story. That's because the P.C. police would have us treat homosexuality as the latest “disease of the week.” You see it in nearly every highbrow art-house treatment of the subject, from Brokeback Mountain to Philadelphia to A Single Man —”issue movies” in which being gay is a burden ripe for tragedy. Audiences are encouraged to shed a tear as Heath Ledger fingers that old flannel shirt in Jake Gyllenhaal's closet. But are they allowed to laugh at the sight of two men slow-dancing in jail while guards pummel a fellow prisoner for playing love songs after lights out?
“The idea was, 'Let's stop making that same movie about gay people that keeps getting made, where being gay is an affliction. Let's make a movie where this guy just happens to be gay,'” says Ficarra (who, like his writing partner, isn't actually gay, by the way). In Phillip Morris, Russell's sexuality is an exuberant part of his identity. The movie opens with the character reflecting on his life from his deathbed. He's been diagnosed with AIDS, and now, as he wastes away in the prison infirmary, it's time to come clean about all his shenanigans. Say what you will about Carrey's elastic performance style, but few other actors could accomplish what he does with such an antihero: a liar-liar whose very flashbacks are suspect, elevating this consummate con man to the ultimate unreliable narrator (“Oh, did I forget to mention I was gay?” asks Russell, standing astride a mustachioed cowboy nearly 10 minutes in. “Yeah, sorry about that. I'm gay. Gay, gay, gay, gay, gay!”). “I think the whole thing is a search for self,” explains Ficarra. “There are all these skeletons in his closet and hidden truths that he's denying, but is he deceiving the audience, or is he deceiving himself?”
If that first rodeo-style gay-sex reveal was the inoculation — an in-your-face twist designed to get frat boys past the initial shock of the subject matter, at which point they can either laugh it off or storm out early — then Steven and Phillip's extended meet-cute behind bars is the truly subversive act that follows, getting straight audiences to care about two small-time cons in love, and doing so in a setting where Hollywood has long exploited their far-fetched prison-rape fears. Phillip Morris combats cheap homophobia with humor, demonstrating that laughter can be a far more effective tool for disarming prejudices than tears. The film embraces absurdity, putting those elements that make people uncomfortable about the so-called “gay lifestyle” in a place where we're allowed to examine and accept them — as opposed to playing it safe, the way I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry did in deflecting any macho discomfort by having the camera ogle Jessica Biel's boobs.
No taboo is off limits for Requa and Ficarra, who also poke fun at religious narrow-mindedness and racism. But it's the controversial way they treat AIDS (to say more would constitute a spoiler) that permanently separates this duo from the good-taste crowd. Not that they mind making sacrifices for the sake of changing people's minds. Between the uphill battle to get Phillip Morris made and the subsequent struggle to share the movie with audiences, the result is far more noble than its irreverent tone might suggest. And “going there” did open the door to a studio gig: The directors are now shooting a big-budget Steve Carell comedy for Warner Bros. As Ficarra puts it, “We're living proof that sometimes people do things for the right reason in Hollywood.”