Is “Phillip Morris” too Gay for Hollywood?

Did you know there’s a new Jim Carrey movie out this weekend? If you’re a regular reader of this site you probably have an idea of what I Love You Phillip Morris is. But most people outside of film geek circles have no clue what this film is about or even that it’s out at all. How does a Jim Carrey movie get buried after being finished for two years? The answer isn’t as complicated as you might think but it’s still very bizarre.

The origins of the I Love You Phillip Morris drama go back to the 2009 Sundance Film Festival where it had its world premiere. The film was being touted as the must-see film of the festival and indeed it was. It starred Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor and also served as the directorial debut of Glen Ficarra and John Requa, the writers behind Bad Santa. Sold as a dark comedy, the movie went into Sundance without a distributor but confident it could secure one by the festival’s end. After all, Jim Carrey’s name alone could guarantee a healthy box office return, right?

As the lights went down in the crowded Eccles theatre the audience anticipation was high and the film did not disappoint. Laughs were abundant throughout the screening and the next day Jim, Ewan and even the film’s producer Luc Besson participated in a huge press day that elevated the film’s profile even higher. Speaking to Jim and Ewan at the press day it was clear they were proud of the film and excited to take a chance at trying something new.

But isn’t I Love You Phillip Morris a comedy? What kind of chance could Jim Carrey be taking if he’s making a low-budget comedy? The answer to that question is the same reason you most likely haven’t heard of the film in the first place, because of its gay content.

To explain, I Love You Phillip Morris begins with Christian family man Steven Russell (Carrey) providing for his wife and kids in a peaceful suburban neighborhood. Everything seems right in the world except for one thing, Steven is secretly gay and after a nasty car wreck has finally decided to come out of the closet and live an openly gay life. This leads to many plot twists I won’t reveal but in short, the film is about a gay con man who keeps breaking out of jail to be with his male lover. Keep in mind this is played for laughs and is all based on a true story.

That premise plus the dark humor brought on by the film’s writer-directors was enough to make I Love You Phillip Morris one of the big hits of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. But despite its popularity no distributor wanted to buy it. Was it the tone of the film? Was it the graphic gay sex? Was it the fact that Jim Carrey, one of the biggest stars working today, was actually playing a gay man for laughs? Without being in those secret meetings I can only speculate what actually happened but the facts are these, the movie didn’t sell at Sundance or even Cannes despite being well received at both festivals. Furthermore, the only offer of theatrical distribution it got was from Consolidated Pictures, a distributor nobody had ever heard of and before it could even touch the film the company went out of business. This threatened to put the film straight to DVD or even worse, in complete limbo.

Finally after months of waiting, Roadside Attractions picked up the film for theatrical distribution earlier this Fall. But with all due respect to Roadside, they are a smaller company and nobody knows about their film. Let me put it another way, nobody knows about their film starring Jim Carrey that just came out this weekend. I’ve seen the film twice, at the Sundance ‘09 premiere and at a recent press screening, both times I’ve watched audiences thoroughly enjoy the film. What’s worse is that there are other Jim Carrey movies that have gotten ten times the exposure as “Phillip Morris” but nowhere near the praise (I’m looking at you Fun With Dick and Jane and The Number 23).

If you release a Jim Carrey comedy in theatres nationwide people will show up. I know the gay material may be off-putting to some but you can at least get a healthy box office take on people’s curiosity. It’s not like the film cost a fortune to make in the first place so the risk is low. Even if it performed at middle-of-the-road numbers it would still be a success.

The last time a studio buried a Jim Carrey movie was 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I’m not saying “Phillip Morris” is the masterpiece “Eternal Sunshine” is but it’s worlds beyond the crap he’s been making lately. And that brings us to our current dilemma, Roadside has bought the film and isn’t shying away from the gay themes at all. You see them front and center in the film’s trailer and it’s all played for laughs. So then why is the movie getting buried? Lack of advertising money? Lack of confidence? Both?

At this rate nobody outside of film geek circles knows about I Love You Phillip Morris and it’s a shame for two reasons. It’s one of Jim Carrey’s best performances in years and it’s low profile almost guarantees it will be his lowest grossing movie ever.

There isn’t a big movie coming out this weekend that needs your help more than I Love You Phillip Morris. It’s slowly opening in a few markets over the weekend and if you can find it, go out and support it. After Yes Man and Horton Hears A Who I never thought I’d be encouraging people to go see a Jim Carrey movie again but life is full of surprises. I Love You Phillip Morris is one of them. Have fun.

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