I Love You Phillip Morris
Jim Carrey as Steven Jay Russell
Ewan McGregor as Phillip Morris
Leslie Mann as Debbie
Antoni Corone as Lindholm
Rodrigo Santoro as Jimmy
Brennan Brown as Larry Birkheim
Jim Carrey’s portrayal of Steven Russell, a notorious real-life con man now serving a 144-year sentence in a Texas prison, hot-wires “I Love You Phillip Morris,” a nervy comedy that bills itself as an “improbable but true story.”
That description in the movie’s production notes applies not only to Mr. Russell’s amazing adventures in fraud, deception, multiple impersonation and prison escape, but it also distills the gleefully blasé attitude of a movie that despite explanatory titles doesn’t bother to make you believe that any of it is true. Mirroring Mr. Russell’s fantastic criminal antics, its abnegation of persnickety realism to track its own zany-sentimental orbit is one of its charms.
Written and directed by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra (“Bad Santa”), who adapted their screenplay from a book by Steve McVicker, a former investigative reporter for The Houston Chronicle, “I Love You Phillip Morris” plays like a goofy social satire. Aping Mr. Russell’s devil-may-care high jinks, it takes for granted the grifter’s faith in the lawlessness, disorder and potential for larcenous self-invention in an easy-money society that allows brilliant sociopaths to fly high.
With its star’s transmutation into a slightly milder variation of his standard screen persona, “I Love You Phillip Morris” is a Jim Carrey movie all the way: a good one, I might add. With his manic glare, ferociously eager smile, hyperkinetic body language and talent for instant self-transformation, Mr. Carrey has rarely been more charismatic on the screen.
Because it is a sexually forthright gay love story, “I Love You Phillip Morris” is also transgressive, at least by Hollywood standards. From the moment Steven meets the title character (Ewan McGregor), a gentle blond Southerner with whom he falls in love at first sight, he is obsessively besotted and will do anything to be with his beloved. The movie is as blunt about the mechanics of gay sex as an episode of “South Park,” and it is likely to meet grass-roots resistance. A star vehicle whose first gay erotic moment shows Mr. Carrey engaged in loud anal sex is asking for trouble.
The mixture of solemnity and caution that usually attach to homosexuality in movies is almost completely absent. Even AIDS is matter-of-factly addressed. But because the movie is really a farce with a bittersweet subtext, that hot action isn’t so hot. For all the kisses exchanged by Mr. Carrey and Mr. McGregor (with a shag haircut and a persuasive Southern vocal twang), there is no suggestion of any serious chemistry between the actors. But there is sweetness. In one scene the lovers slow dance and smooch to Johnny Mathis singing “Chances Are,” oblivious to the riot erupting outside their prison cell.
The story, narrated by Steven from his apparent deathbed, dashes pell-mell through his youth and young adulthood. Upon learning he is adopted, he vows to lead a model-citizen existence, becomes a policeman, marries and sires two children with Debbie (Leslie Mann), a devout Christian airhead. But his days of being a good boy end abruptly after he discovers his birth mother on a police computer, pays her an unannounced visit and has the door slammed in his face.
After an emotional collapse and his near death in a car crash, he vows henceforth to be himself, which means openly, aggressively gay. Moving to Florida, he acquires a boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro) and adopts an extravagant lifestyle that he supports through insurance and credit-card schemes that eventually land him in jail. While incarcerated he meets Phillip (serving time for auto theft) in the prison library and arranges for them to be cellmates. Upon his release Steven impersonates Phillip’s defense lawyer and succeeds in setting his lover free.
In one of his boldest scams Steven cons his way into a job as the chief financial officer of a medical management company from which he blithely embezzles hundreds of thousands of dollars. If the scenes of Steven acting up in the courtroom or trotting out fake statistics at a business meeting are preposterous, they keep the movie aloft.
Steven’s hair’s-breadth escapes from the police and from prison are Keystone Kops-worthy escapades that involve only a modicum of suspense. It is all one big lark. Even “Catch Me If You Can,” another lighthearted film about a master impostor, conveyed a more palpable sense of risk and provided some notion of how its protagonist carried off his impersonations of a pilot, a doctor and a prosecutor.
I won’t give away Steven’s ultimate scam, but it is enough to make you gasp at its audacity. More than improbable, it seems impossible. But it happened.