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The 36 Dramatic Situations: I Love You Phillip Morris (2009) and Obstacles to Love

By  · Published on September 3rd, 2010

This article is part of our 36 Dramatic Situations series.

For 36 days straight, we’ll be exploring the famous 36 Dramatic Situations by presenting a film that exemplifies each one. From family killing family to prisoners in need of asylum, we brush off the 19th-century list in order to remember that it’s still incredibly relevant today.

Whether you’re seeking a degree in Literature, love movies, or just love seeing things explode, our feature should have something for everyone. If it doesn’t, please don’t stick your penis in our anus.

Part 26 of the 36-part series takes a look at “Obstacles To Love” with I Love You Phillip Morris.

The Synopsis

Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) is on his deathbed, a victim of the HIV virus, and he’s recounting the story of the great love of his life. He begins as a happily married policeman who has a brush with death courtesy of a car accident. The experience emboldens him to become what he really is… a homosexual conman. He begins a new life as a gay man in Miami who makes a living via con jobs both big and small, but when his crimes are discovered and he’s shipped off to prison he meets and falls in love with a man named Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). Now Russell will have to use all of his manipulative and deceitful skills to keep Morris in his life by out-maneuvering geography, income needs, and jail sentences. The two are truly in love, but can that affection survive Morris’ discovery of Russell’s illegal schemes?

The Situation

“Obstacles To Love” – The ingredients for this scenario are simple. Two lovers, one obstacle. (Not to be confused with Two Girls, One Cup.) Put simply, there must be two lovers who want to be together but are kept apart by some obstacle. That obstacle can be a physical thing like another person or a great distance or it can be something less concrete like family expectations or societal laws and norms.

The classic example of this particular situation is William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, but I Love You Phillip Morris puts an interesting spin on the usual formula. The love between the two characters is true and shared equally on both sides, and the obstacles to their union are numerous. Most are external in the form of prison terms, society’s expectations, and lifestyle needs, but the most difficult obstacle to overcome is Russell’s own behaviors and poor decisions. He becomes the only real obstacle to the greatest love of both their lives.

The Movie

The film is based on a true story and like life itself is equal parts comedy and tragedy. The love Russell feels toward Morris is genuine and heartfelt, and most important, it’s a mutual affection. Morris loves him back, and for much of the tale he turns a blind eye towards his partner’s behavior. He’s not ignoring the truth as much as he is avoiding it. The story sticks closest to Russell (he narrates as well) and we see his evolution from straight to gay, citizen to convict, honest man to dishonest man and back again. As the two struggle to hold onto their love the movie still manages some very funny dialogue and antics, and parts of it are even borderline zany! There’s one sweaty scene with Carrey flesh-slapping another man, but that shouldn’t stop the prudes among you from checking out one of the sweetest comedies in recent years.

The key to the film’s success rests almost entirely in the performances of Carrey and McGregor. The direction and screenplay by Bad Santa writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa are sharp, funny, and emotional in equal measures, but it’s the two lead actors who sell the most important aspect… the love story. McGregor is sweet and willingly gullible (at least for a while) as the effeminate Morris happy to have found someone with as much thirst for life as Russell. And Carrey nails a role filled with confusion, delight, determination, and an authentic and overwhelming feeling of love for another person. For each of life’s roadblocks the two face Russell is seemingly prepared with tactic and workaround as he schemes and maneuvers his way into jobs and material goods as well as getting Morris an early release from prison.

I featured I Love You Phillip Morris in my Import This! column last month because while the film is over a year old and critically acclaimed it had yet to find a US distributor willing to release it. Happily, that has since changed. Roadside Attractions has acquired North American rights to the film and has scheduled a limited theatrical release on December 3rd with a DVD to follow. It’s still not quite the roll-out the film deserves, but at least people will have a chance to see it.

In the end, the only obstacle to love of any real weight is Russell himself, and he’s ultimately the only thing that true love can’t overcome. It’s a sad truth, one which Carrey makes all the more affecting with his heartfelt and honest performance, but sometimes people behave poorly even when they know how much is at stake. Carrey’s narration explains his behavior in tone and audible regret as much as it does with the actual words.

Bonus Examples: Romeo & Juliet, Twilight, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner

Check out our entire series of 36 Dramatic Situations, 36 Movies.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.