Jim Carrey's Gay Prison Love Story: Oscar Underdog?

PHOTO Jim Carrey as Steven Russell and Ewan McGregor as Phillip Morris in I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS, directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.
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"I Love You Phillip Morris" is not your typical love story.

It's set in a prison. Several prisons, actually. It features more suicide attempts and arrests than your average episode of "CSI." But above all, what's likely going to be the first and last thing many people think of when they think of this movie, which opens in U.S. theaters today, is that it's a love story between two men -- two big-deal Hollywood men, Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor -- who have a lot of sex. In your face, no-holds barred, guy-on-guy sex.

A gay prison comedy/drama with two actors who've won much praise but few major awards: The studio may as well have slapped a "HEY OSCAR COMMITTEE! LOOK AT ME!" sticker on Carrey's head. But will the film's explicit depiction of gay sex be too much for some of the film industry's elite -- and critics, and viewers -- to handle?

One scene features a vigorously thrusting, loudly hollering Carrey clad in nothing but a layer of sweat. In another, McGregor lifts up his head to do a tell-tale spit.

"'Brokeback Mountain' broke a barrier and went where other movies hadn't gone before -- but that was romantic," said E! Online columnist Marc Malkin. "Here, it's matter-of-fact. They're not hiding it, they're not putting it in shadows, they're not fading to black when something's about to happen. 'I Love You Phillip Morris,' doesn't apologize for it. It's, 'Here it is, boom.'"

Raw, gay sex on the one hand, sweet, poignant tale on the other: Beneath the superficially explicit scenes, this film is about, as its title says, love. Based on the true story of legendary con man Steven Jay Russell (Carrey's character), "I Love You Phillip Morris" follows Steven as he leaves his wife, embraces his homosexuality, launches myriad money-making schemes and worms his way in and out of the Texas prison system, where he meets Phillip Morris (McGregor's character, no relation to the tobacco giant) -- a man he'll follow to the ends of the earth.

At times, there's screwball comedy. At times, Carrey twists his features into his famous funny faces. Let it be known, romantic narrative aside, this ain't no "Brokeback."

"I hope audiences will note that it's from the guys behind 'Bad Santa,'" said Jeremy Kinser, arts and entertainment editor of The Advocate. "Don't go in expecting 'Philadelphia' or 'Milk.' Gay people have been portrayed as saintly and as martyrs in any number of films. I think it's time for us to see another facet of a gay character on the big screen."

"I Love You Phillip Morris" hasn't generated the buzz that other award-earning films with gay protagonists have, like the Oscar-winning "Milk" and "Brokeback Mountain." That may be because people have been hearing about it for more than two years. It debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009 and was put out in Europe, Taiwan and Japan earlier this year. Legal problems with the film's distributor held up its U.S. release.

But that may have been for the best. Now, "I Love You Phillip Morris" will hit American theaters at the same time as Hollywood's other crop of Oscar contenders, including "Black Swan," whose Natalie Portman-on-Mila Kunis sex scene has been the subject of much (mostly thumbs-up) hype.

So far, many critics are pleased. In the U.K., The Times called the movie "an extraordinary film that serves as a reminder of just how good Carrey can be when he's not tied into a generic Hollywood crowd-pleaser."

Stateside, the Village Voice called Carrey's turn as Steven Russell "the best performance of Carrey's career." Entertainment Weekly raved, "'I Love You Phillip Morris' pulls off ingenious schemes of its own: It dramatizes a highly unusual relationship -- that's an understatement -- between two men in which homosexual love and sex, ardently enacted on screen in a finely tuned tour-de-force interplay between two movie stars, is just another piece of the story."

Maybe it will be a major player in the upcoming awards season. Maybe, as E! Online's Malkin predicts, the various academies will shy away in favor of the "family-friendly or more subtle" fare that they usually honor. But regardless, "I Love You Phillip Morris" will be remembered for being the first mainstream movie to "go there" when it comes to homosexual sex, and to do so while telling a riveting tale.

"We hope audiences will be intrigued by what is a wholly fascinating true account of a man driven to outlandish and creative extremes by his love for someone, and recognize the even hand with which the film treats the same-sex relationship at its core," said Jarrett Barrios, president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defmation (GLAAD), which has been a vocal supporter of "I Love You Phillip Morris" since its Sundance premiere."At the end of the day, this is a film about love, not sexual orientation."

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