“I love you Philipp Morris”: Cas d’Ecole!

From very early on, the screenwriters turned directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa had concerns about the commercial viability of their directorial debut, “I Love You Phillip Morris.”

Ewan McGregor, left, and Jim Carrey as cellmates in “I Love You Phillip Morris,” directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.
The real Steven Russell, top, in 1997, and Phillip Morris. Their story inspired the film, which is opening on Friday.

As Mr. Ficarra put it, “Who’s going to give us money to shoot a gay con-man prison-escape love story?”

Raising the money was not too difficult, at least once Jim Carrey came on board to play Steven Russell, a devout, married Southerner whose midlife coming out as a gay man leads to radical lifestyle changes (“Being gay is expensive!”), a career as a grifter, stints in prison, a cycle of escapes and recaptures, and a headlong romance with a cellmate named Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). 

But the movie, which was made for $13 million, has taken a bumpy journey to theaters. It was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2009 to a mostly positive reception but languished without distribution until May of that year, when it was acquired by the new company Consolidated Pictures Group.

After a series of missed release dates — Mr. Ficarra said that the distributors “failed to meet their obligations” to the French financier EuropaCorp — the movie ended up on the market again this year. It finally opens on Friday (a joint release of Roadside Attractions and Liddell Entertainment), nearly two years after its Sundance premiere.

“I don’t think it’s a homophobic conspiracy,” Mr. Ficarra said, referring to the movie’s distribution troubles, during a recent interview at a restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Mr. Requa added, “But you can’t say that the subject matter and style of the film didn’t play a part.”

The stranger-than-fiction plot of “I Love You Phillip Morris” draws from a true story. (The opening title asserts: “This really happened. It really did.”) The real-life Steven Russell is serving a 144-year sentence in Texas for escape and fraud. When Mr. Requa and Mr. Ficarra came across the story — in the form of a book treatment by Steve McVicker, a former investigative reporter for The Houston Chronicle — they were struck by the purposeful intensity of Mr. Russell’s fabulism.

“This is a guy who is to a certain extent deluded,” Mr. Requa said. “But he has a real gift for making the world conform to the way he sees things.” An egregiously unreliable narrator, Steven sets the prevailing tone. As he pulls off one con after another, the film springs its own bait-and-switch traps and whiplash reversals.

“The wonderful thing about this script is it kept confusing me,” Mr. Carrey said in a phone interview. “Every couple of pages I changed my opinion about Steven. I’d like him, I’d hate him, I’d like him, I’d hate him. The one constant in the whole thing is his relentlessness, which is what I wanted to play. I wanted to find out what’s behind it.”

While preparing for the role, he said, he spoke to gay friends, read the writings of the activist Larry Kramer and watched “safe-sex instructional videos.” But he added that the central question remained, as it does with most of his parts: “What lie does the person believe about themselves? Even if it’s an absurd character, there’s a belief system.”

In Mr. Russell’s case Mr. Carrey attributed his behavior to “a severe case of abandonment.” (In the film Steven learns at a young age that he was adopted, and as an adult he’s rebuffed by his birth mother.) “That forms a grandiose personality,” Mr. Carrey said, “a need to constantly prove yourself.”

Mr. Requa noted that Mr. Carrey is the rare actor for whom the film’s wild tonal shifts are not a stretch. In comic and dramatic films alike, including “Liar Liar” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Mr. Carrey has specialized in characters defined by raging identity crises and compulsions that verge on pathology. “Jim really identified with Steven as a man constantly reinventing himself,” Mr. Requa said.

In managing the movie’s volatile mix of comedy and tragedy, irony and sincerity Mr. Requa and Mr. Ficarra often shot three versions of a scene, ranging from restrained to broad, to leave themselves options in the editing room.

A gay romantic comedy that takes place largely behind bars presents a minefield of tasteless jokes about prison sex that most filmmakers would approach with caution. But Mr. Requa and Mr. Ficarra, the writers of “Bad Santa” (2003), which starred Billy Bob Thornton as a lustful, profane, binge-drinking St. Nick, are not the types to tread lightly. (They also wrote another potty-mouthed Thornton vehicle, the 2005 “Bad News Bears” remake.)

“We think sex is funny, and people are too precious and too sensitive about it,” Mr. Ficarra said.

“I Love You Phillip Morris” may celebrate the American genius for self-invention and self-deception, but its guiding principle is the French notion of “l’amour fou.” This conforms with the version of events that Mr. Russell presented when Mr. Requa and Mr. Ficarra visited him in prison.

“Steven talks about the two of them like it’s the greatest love story ever told,” Mr. Ficarra said. “You talk to Phillip, and it sounds like that might not be the case.”


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