POSTED ON DECEMBER 29, 2010:
Kings and Queens
Two very different films recommended in I Love You Phillip Morris and The King's Speech
I Love You, Phillip Morris sat on a shelf for way over a year before finally seeing a very limited release recently. Usually that's a sign that a film is a steaming pile that everyone involved wants to distance themselves from and write off to the history of bad decisions.
Thing is, I Love You, Phillip Morris isn't bad. In fact, it's more than passably good: certifiably fine actors in the form of Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor and Leslie Mann. A good script, decently directed, from the writers of Bad Santa, detailing one of those, funny, too-good-to-be-true (though it is) stories that is so decidedly American--the smart, likeably incorrigible, wily conman who always seems one step ahead of the authorities. On top of that it's a rather touching love story, to boot. Why would a film with these qualities have any problem finding distribution or an audience?
My guess is all the gayness.
Love in all the wrong places. While he’s serving his time in prison for fraud, Steven (Jim Carrey) meets Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a sweetly shy man with whom he immediately becomes smitten.
Steven Russell (Carrey) has the empirically perfect life. A well-liked, small-town sheriff with a lovely, wife (Mann) and child, Russell has a major epiphany after a car accident and decides he's going to live his life his way, which is to say he quits his job, moves to Florida, gets a Brazilian boyfriend and starts living as flamboyantly large as possible. The only problem is "being gay is expensive," so Russell becomes a conman in order to finance his evermore extravagant existence. Crafty though he is, the law soon catches up with him.
While he's serving his time in prison for fraud, Steven meets Phillip Morris (McGregor), a sweetly shy man with whom he immediately becomes smitten. Separated in different cellblocks they woo each other through correspondence until Steven--who is as adept at gaming the system in prison as he was on the outside--arranges to have Phillip moved into his cell. They quickly fall in love.
Once Steven is paroled, he immediately sets about securing Phillip's release and when they are re-united in the real world they begin to build the perfect life together. Unfortunately, Steven's desire to lavish his soul-mate with the best life has to offer compels him to fall back on his talent for relieving his employers of large amounts cash.
Steven Russell was a genius (literally: he sports an IQ of 163), able to impersonate lawyers, doctors, obtain employment as a corporate executive all while concealing his criminal record and the lack of any academic degrees. But what really put him in a league of his own was his uncanny ability to escape from prison, earning him the nickname, "King Con." His exploits become so audacious--his final means of escape is too remarkable to give away--that the film itself assures the audience before the opening credits that, yes, all of this really happened.
Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (based on the book of the same name), I Love You, Phillip Morris mostly works as a comedy but its tone veers too often from poignancy to a light-hearted wackiness that never feels quite as genuine as the story really deserves. The script is fine, but directorially Requa and Ficarra can't seem to find an organic middle ground in which to root the film and, as a result, the way it plays the comic absurdity of Russell's real life exploits against the dramatic moments can sometimes feel cheap. Bad Santa straddled the same line, but in director Terry Zwigoff's hands the sentimentality that gilds the mean-spirited--and frequent--laughs felt earned.
Some of the blame for that can be laid at Carrey's feet though I'm not even sure that it's totally his fault. He can do drama well (as evidenced by his fine work in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) but his trademark default mode of borderline mania has a natural tendency to overwhelm a character who is even remotely larger-than-life to begin with, much less one as colorful as Steven Russell. He doesn't devolve into a gay caricature, and he's in the role (variable southern accent aside) but his overall "Carrey-ness" made it difficult to maintain the illusion--though, not for lack of trying. Carrey and McGregor are both quite brave here and despite the fact I couldn't lose myself in Carrey's performance, I did buy them as a couple. Since that relationship is the heart of the film it works well in the overall sense, despite the fact it sometimes feels like the film is slyly winking.
McGregor has the better turn as Phillip Morris, and is largely responsible for how well their relationship plays. He can't trust Steven but can't stop loving him and his realization that the relationship is doomed no matter how he feels was one of the of the more touching scenes of any romantic comedy this year. It's a good performance; good enough to make me forget I'm watching Obi-Wan Kenobi go down on Ace Ventura.
But there it is. Carrey's fine and McGregor is very good but I really think casting unknowns (or at least lesser-knowns) would have helped I Love You, Phillip Morris immensely. But then would anyone want to see it? Gay love stories don't get many asses in seats unless you cast famously straight stars to inspire curiosity--and/or they're about lesbians; a lot of guys developed a sudden interest in ballet lately thanks to Black Swan.
Or win an Oscar (worked for Brokeback), something I don't think I Love You, Phillip Morris will have to worry about. It's good and funny, but a story like Steven Russell's could have been so much more.
The King's Speech
I've said it before, but I love when a film puts you in a pivotal time and place in history, particularly when it spins it's tale in a funny, entertaining and poignant way. That, The King's Speech does with a dignified enthusiasm that leaves you feeling richer for the experience.
The King's Speech recounts the ascension of King George VI (nee Albert) to the throne in the years before World War II and his history making address that united England as they prepared for war with Germany. That sounds pretty straight forward but for one glitch: "Bertie" has a stammer. In a country obsessed with being "proper" such dysfunction in a King can undermine his gravity.
When we meet Albert (Colin Firth) he is the Duke of York--his older brother Edward (Guy Pearce) is to succeed George V (Michael Gambon)--and while his stammer is a cause for embarrassment his station renders the issue more or less irrelevant.
Speak Up. Perhaps sensing that greatness will be thrust upon him, his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) convinces Albert (Colin Firth) to begin speech therapy with an eccentric therapist.
Perhaps sensing that greatness will be thrust upon him, his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) convinces Albert to begin speech therapy with an eccentric therapist, Lionel Logue (an impeccable Geoffrey Rush) whose strict rules and unusual methods require an unorthodox familiarity between royalty and subject. What begins as a fairly contentious relationship--Albert has a bit of a temper--slowly evolves into an unlikely friendship.
And it's quite a joy. Directed by Tom Hooper (The Damned United) from a script by David Seidler (Tucker), The King's Speech lovingly renders it's story in sharp, witty, writing, top of the line performances and richly detailed production and art design--captured in cinematographer Danny Cohen's warm compositions--that place you firmly into its fascinating moment in time. Hooper's assured and confident direction pulls you in even if you're the type to avoid somewhat predictable films about stodgy British royalty. Everything here is so finely tuned and well crafted that the film can't avoid being compelling. Indeed, The King's Speech is one of the best of the year.
There's not a bad performance in the bunch, be it Bohnam Carter's playfully reverent portrayal of Elizabeth, Firth's tightly controlled yet humane performance as Bertie/George VI or Rush's wonderfully timed turn as Lionel. Firth and Rush have a great rapport; seeing their friendship take root as their characters become something more than King and commoner strikes a sublime arc that is eloquently enjoyable. These men were thrust by different forces into the annals of history and the way that leads them both to fulfill their duties to their country, as it becomes clear Bertie is going to have to do something about Hitler, gives the story the satisfying sense of real life circumstance, wonderfully performed.
Hooper directs with a detailed eye and captures the superb work of his leads while keeping the narrative firmly--if somewhat predictably--on track. There's not much in the way of visual fireworks here but Hooper doesn't need to focus on more than his actors, as the rich production design ably puts you in the time and place. The man shoots a painterly picture and lets the painters shine.
The King's Speech is that perfect amalgam of fine writing and stellar acting that could make a movie about janitors in Siberia gripping much less the unlikely story of a therapist and his King whose friendship enabled their country's resolve as it was about to plunge into the abyss. Long live the King.
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