I Love You, Phillip Morris is an unbelievable-but-true black comedy about scams, lies and true love that proves gay-themed Hollywood sagas don’t all have to end in suicide, although this one does end in prison. Jim Carrey plays fearless, freewheeling Steven Russell, who is currently serving the ninth year of a 144-year sentence as a career criminal for a multitude of offenses and four successful escapes in five years to join his lover, a sweet, pretty, low-key naïf played by Ewan McGregor. During his escapades, Russell, who has been profiled at length in Esquire magazine, has used 14 known aliases, posing as a judge, a doctor, an F.B.I. agent and a lawyer, once defending his own boyfriend in court and winning, persuading both the jury and the judge. The theme of his desperate predicament is “What I did for love.” It recalls Catch Me if You Can, Steven Spielberg’s 2002 hit about real-life con man Frank Abagnale Jr. (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), but Russell’s story is more romantically motivated. It’s a wild, politically incorrect story–so preposterous you have to pinch yourself to remember it’s factual–that gives Jim Carrey his most challenging role in years, and his least convincing performance. As wacky and charismatic as he is, the libidinous star comes close to ruining the picture. But more about that later.
This is an oddball tale that is well worth telling, but Mr. Carrey simply cannot resist turning it into a Three Stooges routine in drag.
Russell’s sexuality (something Mr. Carrey cannot or will not play with any real honesty or conviction) is central to the story, but first you have to see how he evolves. When we first meet him, he’s a happy family man in Georgia with a wife and daughter who plays the church organ, then a white-collar businessman, then a cop. All it takes is a car accident, and he emerges screaming from the ambulance with a permanently limp wrist dangling from his arm. Deserting his family, he moves to Florida with a boyfriend who looks like a porno star and comes out of the closet with a crash–but being gay is expensive, dontcha know, so he turns to insurance fraud and lands in the state penitentiary, where he meets a handsome bottle blond in the library who is in for grand theft auto, and it’s love at first lunge. Steven pulls every trick in the system to share a honeymoon cell. Think this is not a heart-shaped candy box of a love story? Surrounded by profanity and violence behind bars, Steven and Phillip slow-dance in their cell to Johnny Mathis singing “Chances Are.”
When he gets out, he dons bow ties and tortoise-shell glasses, pretends to be a hot-shot defense attorney and sets Phillip free. To pay for their new love nest, he resorts to his old chicanery, conning his way into a powerful job as financial adviser to a big investment firm and embezzling millions. It’s back to the slammer again, but this guy is just getting started. In his most sensational acting job, he lands in the prison infirmary where he commits the ultimate con, starving himself into convincing the doctors he’s a dying AIDS patient (nobody even bothers to take a blood test??), and escapes again. Look him up on the Internet and you won’t believe the rest of the story. (It’s not over yet.) You also won’t believe he looks anything like Jim Carrey.
This is an oddball tale that is well worth telling, but Mr. Carrey simply cannot resist turning it into a Three Stooges routine in drag. The real Steven Russell looks like a mischievous, balding construction hard hat in retirement whose biggest weakness is a frail, soft-spoken, mild-mannered younger man named Phillip Morris. Phillip is the girlfriend who needs protection and guidance in exchange for a good time in the Porthault linen, but Ewan McGregor plays him like a strong, dependable Gibraltar. It’s Mr. Carrey who throws himself all over the scenery like a male Betty Hutton. He develops a certain callow tone and rag doll comedic style, but it’s hard to tell whether so much kinetic energy comes from the second-rate writing and direction of John Requa and Glenn Ficarra (Bad Santa) or the star’s own special brand of breathless violence. He is never still. He moves like a 78-rpm recording on automatic replay, rarely pausing to inhale. I admire him for risking the loyalty of his fans in a courageous attempt to erode barriers in mainstream cinema, but it would have been more satisfactory and remarkable if he had played it straight (no pun intended). Don’t expect prurience. The kissing is in your face, but contrary to the reports from Sundance, where it was unveiled to a shocked audience almost a year ago, the sex scenes have either been excised or they never existed in the first place. Mr. Carrey has balls of brass, but seeing him dressed flamboyantly in fish-net bikinis and high-heel Nancy Sinatra boots is an experience I hope never to repeat again in this lifetime. In his most recent interview, Steven Russell says he still loves Phillip Morris. He spends his time behind bars hatching new escape plots while keeping fit and fashionable, but there’s only so much you can do with handcuffs.
I LOVE YOU, PHILLIP MORRIS
Running time 100 minutes
Written and directed by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, based on a book by Steve McVicker
Starring Ewan McGregor, Jim Carrey, Leslie Mann