Jim Carrey is a con man who falls in love with his cellmate in I Love You Phillip Morris, a dark and charming comedy.
Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) is a mere wisp of a man when we first see him, dying in a hospital bed, thinking back on his life. He grew up with the desire to be the do-rightest of Dudley Do-Rights, becoming a cop in his small hometown and putting up with the overcooked religion of his wife Debbie (Leslie Mann). Adopted, he’s always tried to live up to his parents’ expectations of him — until he meets his birth mother, who wants nothing to do with him. To heck with all that goodness, he says, and moves his family out of his small town to a Texas suburb where he gets a good job, has a nice house and, when his wife thinks he’s working late, has sex with random men. Because Steven is gay, something he has not yet told Debbie or thoroughly admitted to himselfe. But then he’s nearly killed in a car accident and decides to live out and proud. He moves to Florida and gets a live-in boyfriend, Jimmy (Rodrigo Santoro).
But, he tells us in the movie’s voice-over narration, being gay is expensive. For Steven, being the kind of gay man he wants to be requires the best clothes, lovely watches for himself and Jimmy and a swank apartment, so he starts running a variety of cons — slip-and-falls in department stores, credit card fraud and the like. The law eventually catches up with him and he winds up in jail.
Where he meets Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor).
It’s love at first sight, never mind the prison jumpsuits, when Steven meets Phillip. They are not just in love, they are 1950s movie musical in love, all moony eyes and dancing to a dreamy love song illegally played after lights out. Even when Steven is transferred for having a guy beat up, their love continues to grow and when Steven is finally released, he sets out trying to secure Phillip’s freedom so they can make a life together. Which they do — except of course that life is expensive and good jobs are hard to come by when you’ve been in prison for being a con man, so Steven finds himself getting creative with his résumé and then creative with his new company’s funds.
This movie’s co-writers and co-directors, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, were writers on the movie Bad Santa and a similar sensibility shows through here. Moments of genuine pathos are often punctuated by hilarity that actually takes you by surprise. One moment, Steven is remembering the heartfelt words of a dying friend. The next moment, he’s pondering a brazen jailbreak. Carrey’s narration helps to pull these emotion sudden-turns off. He is matter-of-fact and plays a man who enjoys his own hubris. The movie is based on a true story (how much and how accurately, I don’t know) and has a bit of fun with the corporate culture of the 1980s and 1990s. It also delights in Steven’s scheming and his mix of destructive behavior and genuine feeling. And just as Bad Santa hid a story about a sweet kid in need of a family beneath a mountain of profanity and a drunken Claus played by Billy Bob Thornton, I Love You Phillip Morris is actually the most swoony romance beneath all the outlandish criminality. Carrey and McGregor play their big dramatic characters straightfaced and with genuine feeling at the center of all the absurdity. And they have excellent chemistry — Carrey’s Steven wanting to be a white knight and McGregor’s Phillip looking for a sheltering love. Even when the movie is at its most improbable, the couple is charming.
Rated R for sexual content including strong dialogue and language. Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (from the book by Steven McVicker), I Love You Phillip Morris is an hour and 40 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Roadside Attractions.