Coincidentally, just as Roberta was poppin’ out her post on A Single Man, a friend took me to a preview screening of I Love You, Phillip Morris, in which Ewan McGregor and Jim Carrey go rather spectacularly gay. Having seen both movies and read Roberta’s lucid take on Tom Ford’s Fabergé egg of a movie, I would definitely say that Phillip Morris had the more distancing effect on me, artificial as A Single Man might be. And more, it made me think in context, not just in the (highly emotional) moment, and for that I’m grateful.
Phillip Morris is definitely not the better film. In fact, it’s markedly weaker; a bit confused, sometimes tone-deaf, witless at some crucial moments, and so thrilled by having bagged Carrey and McGregor that it doesn’t concentrate on giving their talents appropriate material or support. The elements of it that work, however, do so very well. In particular, I’m impressed that any plot twist involving AIDS could be funny, and not in the Curb Your Enthusiasm/coal-black schadenfreude idiom either. But more important than its internal failures and successes is the peculiar moment it illustrates - one where gays (whatever they really are) have truly gained a presence in mainstream, straight cinema.
After so long being either tragicomically marginalised (or thrown in with autism sufferers and the domestically abused as targets in the pinball-machine structure of an esteemed Hollywood career), gay men now sit as subjects in genres across the board. Recently we’ve had biopic (Milk), buddy/romance hybrid (Brokeback Mountain) and highbrow literary adaptation (A Single Man), all made with top-flight straight actors and marketed (successfully) well beyond their traditional, reliable-but-small audience of history-conscious gays like me. Oscars were mentioned, given, obviously withheld leading to mild outcry (remember Crash?) - this, readers, is progress.
Now, Phillip Morris isn’t up to those recent movies’ standards (even the turgid Brokeback is more involving), but it’s worth a go. More importantly, it shows off the complexity of this situation which I so lazily choose to deem a good one. For even given its political importance as a popcorn movie with primary-coloured advertising that also features Jim Carrey having graphic sex with a man, Phillip Morris runs close to some dangerous ground. These gays, should we fail to see them for what they are, are the campest one ever to take up so much Odeon screen space, and it’s a shame such extremes are needed. And given that the film throws its lot in with the gay-from-birth-or-before school of thought (again, in some ways an advance from it’s-his-dad’s-fault), it runs the risk of grafting campness onto homosexuality just as toothy smiles and watermelons were once tied to black Americans. Then there’s the thorny issue of AIDS, whose presence is never explained. It somehow arrives. Maybe that’s just what happens in this new gay world that Hollywood has “discovered”.
But the point is not to lose sight of the bigger picture. We’re here, we’re queer, and they already appear to be getting used to it, but the question remains: on whose terms does that acceptance come? It’s a question I certainly don’t feel confident answering. Any ideas, people?
- Andrew Naughtie
Trailer for “I Love You Phillip Morris”