I Love You Phillip Morris is the lost film of the noughties, a masterpiece of filmmaking that no one remembers less than ten years later. Everyone who loves film has a movie they champion in the face of an indifferent world, and I have several, but none so much as I Love You Phillip Morris. Wikipedia calls it a “black comedy drama” but I Love You Phillip Morris is one of those rare multi-genres films that layers each element so perfectly the result is pure alchemy, a work of art so inexplicably magical that even an accurate label can only ever be a reductive one. I Love You Phillip Morris is a biopic, a caper, a black comedy and a tragedy, but if it’s any kind of film, it’s a romantic comedy, and not just a romantic comedy, but one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time.
There’s an inherent determinism to the romantic comedy genre: these people must belong together because they are the protagonists of a romantic comedy. But more than any other film I’ve ever seen, I Love You Phillip Morris takes seriously the idea of two people – real, broken and tragically flawed people – who are destined to love each other, which is all the more extraordinary because it’s the true story of two people who don’t get to be together at the end.
I strongly urge you at this point to watch I Love You Phillip Morris before proceeding, not just because I spoil the shit out its plot, but because you almost definitely haven’t seen it and no one else is gonna tell you if I don’t.
True stories aren’t true, and why should they be? We don’t watch film to encounter reality. We watch film to escape reality, or to see the possibility in it. We may sometimes even watch film to find the deeper truth beneath mundane facts, but, at its greatest, we watch film to catch a glimpse of things beyond truth, things too transcendent to be bound by mere reason. I Love You Phillip Morris portrays love as just such a spiritual experience, a love that is devotional and sublime and transformative in a way that love never is, in a way that love never can be, and maybe never should. Appropriately enough, it is a story about a liar.
Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) is dying, and we have gathered to hear his last confession. He wants to tell us about everything he ever did to make other people love him. After learning as a child that he was adopted at birth, he resolves to be “the best son, no, the best person” he can be. He becomes a police officer, marries a beautiful woman and brings a daughter into the world. He goes to church every Sunday, plays the piano and belts out every hymn with the choir, his face raised to heaven in a grimace of unbearable joy.
Then he tracks down the woman who gave him up at birth and forgives her, but she pretends she doesn’t know what he’s talking about and shuts the door in his face. “I’ll come back later. I’ll bring us some coffee, and we can talk about why you abandoned me and kept your other two children,” he says, as his carefully composed facade shatters against this second rejection. “I was the middle child, what was wrong with me?” When he doesn’t get an answer, he steals his birth mother’s welcome mat (“because it’s a lie”), quits the force and moves his family to Texas. He gets a job in the family business, produce, with great benefits and plenty of home time. Steven seems to be living the American Dream.
There’s just one little wrinkle: Steven is gay. Gay, gay, gay, gay, gay. He comes out after a near-fatal car crash makes him realise he can’t keep living a lie. He resolves to buy what he wants, do what he wants and fuck who he wants. But a life without limits isn’t a life without costs. Steven becomes a con artist to provide a life of luxury and excess for himself, his boyfriend, his ex-wife and his daughter. When the law finally catches up with him, he tries to overdose rather than face time, but he can’t swallow enough pills to die. Thankfully, he’s better suited for prison than he expected. He makes all the right friends and greases all the right palms. He idles away his days reading in the law library. His life is as rote and ordinary as it was before the crash, until he meets Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor).
I tried to research the real-life events behind the film before writing this article. I really did. But I couldn’t make it more than a paragraph into a review of the biography on which it’s based because it would betray everything the film is about to know anything beyond what it tells me. However, that paragraph confirmed exactly one thing that happens in the film to be true, at least as far as Steven Russell’s biographer is concerned: the meet-cute.
This really happened. It really did.
Steven sees Phillip through a canteen window, just in passing. He’s immediately captivated by this quiet, beautiful man who leaves the room when a fight breaks out. Steven follows him to the law library, where Phillip is reaching for a book on a high shelf. Steven grabs it for him and asks what Phillip needs it for. Phillip explains he wants to help his friend in the infirmary, who’s dying of AIDS. Steven rattles off the relevant legal procedures and tells Phillip he’s a lawyer to impress him. They share their convictions. The rest is history. Steven declares they’re destined for each other just hours later, and begs Phillip for the chance to prove it. Phillip reveals he’s going to be transferred to a different block that night, but Steven refuses to let anything stand in the way. He wins Phillip’s heart on a chain of smuggled letters, then arranges to become Phillip’s cellmate. He tells Phillip that he’ll always take care of him, and that they’ll never be apart.
“Enough romance,” Phillip responds, “let’s fuck.”
I Love You Phillip Morris is a gloriously gay movie.
Christianity figures prominently in I Love You Phillip Morris, and not always where you expect it. Steven’s wife, Debbie, is a devout believer who prays every night in excruciatingly thorough detail and never stops believing that God has a plan for Steven. The taxi driver who picks up Steven from prison when he’s first released asks if he can tell Steven about the word of his Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Steven isn’t antireligious, even if he occasionally pokes fun at Debbie’s piousness, but he doesn’t get anything out of Christianity, perhaps because it challenges him to believe something he can’t: that he deserves to be loved, despite his flaws, and not just loved, but loved absolutely and infinitely by God Himself.
Steven can’t even believe another person would love him, and so he approaches all his relationships as the doubtful supplicant of some fickle deity he fears will turn away from him at any moment like his birth mother did. He attends to the ritual of suburban family life to make Debbie and his daughter love him. He sacrifices his body on supermarket floors and escalators to shower his first boyfriend, Jimmy, with money and gifts. Steven will do anything to earn back the love he gives except permit himself to accept it, reveal himself to his loved ones and have faith he will be loved in spite of his imperfections.
Instead, he lies and hides himself and tries to buy their love. He devotes his every waking hour to Phillip from the moment they meet. When he’s able to get both himself and Phillip out of prison, Steven even attempts to go straight by using one last con to get himself a legitimate job as CFO of a medical management firm. He succeeds at first, but his doubt is too fundamental to ever be conquered by something as flimsy and feeble as success. He feeds his need to spend ever more money on buying Phillip’s love by embezzling millions from the company in almost imperceptible amounts. He gives Phillip everything except his trust, and lies to his face when Phillip asks if there’s anything going on he doesn’t know about. Steven’s practice of love evolves from the mere repetition of ritual to almost priestly devotion, but until he takes a leap of faith and gives Phillip the opportunity to truly love him by allowing Phillip to truly see him, their love will be doomed by every stupid, toxic thing Steven does to bridge the gap. Steven must do more than give Phillip his life, he must give Phillip his heart. For every risk Steven takes on himself, for every injury he endures to his body, he has sacrificed nothing at all until he allows Phillip to truly see him and gives Phillip the opportunity to truly reject him, until he is willing to endure not just an injury to his body but the complete destruction of his soul.
When the law catches up with him again, Steven finds himself in the back of a police car as Phillip drives away from him and his lies. He reveals another hidden piece of the story to us. While waiting to go to prison the first time, his boyfriend, Jimmy, is dying of AIDS. Steven tells Jimmy he needs him around, that he’s the love of his life. Jimmy tells Steven he’s not. “I’ve seen him,” Jimmy says, his voice soft with the certainty of a prophet. “You haven’t met him yet. But you will. And you’re gonna be so happy. And I know you don’t think so, but you deserve to be happy.” Steven doesn’t believe him, but Jimmy makes Steven promise him that when he meets the love of his life, he’ll treat him right. As he sits in the back of the police car, the life he built with Phillip collapsing all around him, Steven thinks of his promise to Jimmy, and the promises he made to Phillip. He tricks a police officer into bringing him Phillip’s insulin and uses it to induce a seizure so he can escape from the hospital, but the police anticipate his plan. He wakes chained to his bed. He’s sent to prison. He escapes, but he’s caught and sent back. He escapes again, and he’s caught again and again and again. He refuses to give up on a love he’s finally starting to believe is destiny, a love foreseen in the fading eyes of his first love. He’s convinced he can win Phillip back if he can just talk to him. But when he finally makes it to Phillip’s front door and convinces him to open it by shedding what he’s sure is the last lie between them, his first lie about being a lawyer, and promising to never lie to Phillip again, that’s when everything really goes to shit and the police arrive to arrest them both.
To select a single point in the story when Steven falls in love with Phillip would be reductive, but if there is such a moment, it’s during their first cuddle, on the night they become cellmates. Phillip is telling Steven about his previous partners, and Steven quickly picks up on and points out how each man took advantage of Phillip (“What would a Broadway producer be doing in Atlanta?”), but each time Phillip just shrugs it off and says they were nice guys. Steven tells Phillip he amazes him. “You always see the good.”
Steven fell in love with Phillip because Phillip embodied Steven’s false ideal of love, a love that always sees the good, and never sees the bad. He fell in love with Phillip because he thought Phillip’s love could be the love that made him feel worthy of love at all. He wanted to use Phillip to fill up the cracks in his heart with an endless stream of unconditional love. But just because someone always sees the good doesn’t mean they never see the bad, and though Steven wonders in retrospect whether he started to embezzle because it was his “nature”, his “past”, or because his colleagues “were the most boring fucking people” he’d ever met, it’s clear as a viewer his motivation is resentment towards them for how they make him too afraid to take Phillip with him to social events or be openly gay in any way, lest he jeopardise his ability to provide, which makes Phillip resents him for leaving him home alone at night so often while he golfs and attends gala balls.
Steven wants Phillip to fix him, change him, and save him with his love, but other people aren’t just there to be the means to our own happiness, and love isn’t a blunt instrument for chiselling out the life you want from the hard lump of shit you’re given.
As they wait to be processed, Phillip forces Steven to reckon with his actions. “From the moment we met, you’ve done nothing but lie. Our relationship, nothing but lies.” He tells Steven that he’s just like all the other men who took advantage of him. “And you expect me to love you? How can I? How can I love you? I don’t even know who you are. And you know what’s sad? I don’t even think you know who you are. So how am I supposed to love something that don’t even exist, you tell me.” The guard calls him and Phillip turns to look Steven in the eye. “I will never forgive you, Steven. Never.” The guard takes him away and that, Steven tells us, is the last time he ever saw Phillip. He tells us that he knew Phillip was right, that Phillip, Jimmy and Debbie had all been right about him, that his life was just lies. “Lies to make people give me their money, lies to make people love me, and lies to keep them from leaving me.” He admits he’d lost himself in his lies, and that maybe his birth mother gave him up because she could see straight away the corruption in his heart. “Whatever the case, how does a person who doesn’t exist go on existing? The answer is: he doesn’t.” The only thing Steven ever needed to do was reveal himself willingly to Phillip, but instead his lies caught up with him, and rather than reveal himself, he was exposed. He refused to unravel himself before the man he loved, and now, in the ache of his loss, he is unravelled.
We watch Steven weep himself numb. We watch his body waste away to a thin film of flesh stretched over bone. We watch as he’s diagnosed with AIDS. We’re back to where we started, with Steven in bed, waiting to die. He tells us the only thing keeping him going is the hope he might see Phillip again, but he doesn’t know much longer he can endure. Phillip finds out about Steven’s impending death through the prison grapevine and rushes to the infirmary demanding to see him, but he’s been transferred to a private care facility after falling into a coma. Steven is awake now, but Phillip has missed his chance to see him before he goes. He calls Steven’s care facility over and over until they put him through. Phillip tells Steven he’s still angry but that even if he doesn’t always know who Steven is, he still loves him, that he never stopped. “I guess you and me are just fools for love or something, written in the stars or some crap like that.” He tells Steven he realises that everything he ever did was for Phillip and their love. “And even though I can’t be with you right now, I’ll always be yours. Forever.” He tells Steven it’s okay to go if he has to go. Even if they can’t be together, their love will still exist. Their love will reach across the great barrier of life and death, binding their souls into eternity.
Steven turns silently from the phone and the nurse hangs up. He sees his mother calling him home on the day he learned he was adopted. The grapevine carries the news of his death to Phillip. He’s barely begun to grieve when a prison guard comes to bring him to see his lawyer. The guard opens the door to the meeting room.
Steven stands up from the table. Phillip stares at him. The guard leaves. Steven smiles. Phillip smacks him in the face.
Love is not a tool but that doesn’t mean it can’t heal us, or transform us, or save us. Love can do all those things, and it does all those things for Steven, but that’s not what love is for. Only when he stops practicing love as a shallow transactional parody of religion and starts practicing it as a true act of faith can Steven reap the abundant fruits of his love. Destiny isn’t inevitable in spite of free will, it’s inevitable because of free will, and lovers aren’t written in the stars despite who they are as people, but because of who they are, or are capable of becoming, if they’re really and truly meant for each other.
“You don’t have to take me back,” Steven tells Phillip. “I just wanna say one thing. I know you think that we are nothing but a lie. But underneath all those lies, there was always something that was real. I thought about what you said to me. You said I don’t know who I am. But I know now. I know who I am. I’m not a lawyer. I’m not a CFO. I’m not a cop. I’m not some kind of escape artist. Those Steven Russells are dead. And now all that’s left is the man that loves you. And if you can see that and believe it, I promise I’ll never be anything else ever again.”
For the first time, Steven doesn’t offer ritual or sacrifice or devotion, just himself and his love, and asks Phillip to match the leap of faith he’s making with one of his own. He’s at a disadvantage. He’s a lifelong liar who’s just revealed he broke his previous promise to never lie to Phillip again with the most awful lie he’s ever told. But you can’t have a leap of faith without a chasm of doubt.
“How do I know you’re not bullshitting me?”
How do I know this film isn’t bullshitting me? I don’t. Not as far as facts go, at least. I assume plenty of things in the story either didn’t happen as portrayed or didn’t happen at all, but I don’t know which things, and I’m absolutely certain it wouldn’t enhance my experience of the film to know what’s bullshit and what’s not. I Love You Phillip Morris is a story about a liar, and I’m a liar too. I wrote all the way back at the start that this movie portrays a love that’s too profound to be possible, but I don’t believe that. I Love You Phillip Morris is a story about a liar, and it’s a true story, so you know it’s full of lies. But underneath all those lies, I believe there’s something real. I doubt anyone could possibly love another person as deeply as Steven and Phillip love each other, but this film gives me faith in that kind of love, regardless of what seems to be possible, and that’s why I know it’s a great movie. You can’t fake that kind of power in art.
In his magnum opus Fear and Trembling, the philosopher Kierkegaard distinguishes between the tragic hope of the knight of infinite resignation, who resigns himself to a life without his true love, though he may believe they’ll be reunited in the world to come, and the knight of faith, who believes he’ll be reunited with his love in this world, in this life, despite its impossibility, because all things are possible through God. In I Love You Phillip Morris, the final shot shows Steven sprinting away from the supermax prison where he’s been sentenced to spend the rest of his life in inhumanly constricted conditions after getting caught trying to get Phillip out of prison again. Even though the guards are right behind him, he laughs towards the sky as he runs. It doesn’t matter that escape is impossible. It doesn’t matter that this scene is impossible, and almost certainly taking place in Steven’s imagination. It’s just as impossible for imperfect humans to enact the perfection of a divine plan, but Steven and Phillip are destined for each other all the same. The camera pans up to the film’s most powerful and hilarious recurring image, a cloud in the shape of a man’s wiener.
Steven Russell doesn’t believe in God, but he believes in Phillip Morris. And I believe in him.