I Love You Phillip Morris is based on a true story. Kind of. The movie version tells us at the outset that the truth may be a little...elastic, shall we say. (As is its relationship with grammar. Punctuation nerds, where's my titular direct address?) Still, given that the movie is based on a nonfiction book by journalist Steve McVicker, and its subject, Steven Russell, is currently in prison for the fraud shown in the film, that even a scintilla of I Love You Phillip Morris is true is kind of amazing.
I Love You Phillip Morris is written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the comedic masterminds who wrote Bad Santa, and they bring a lot of that same irreverence to this effort. Jim Carrey stars as Steven Russell, a one-time cop and church organist from Georgia. After a car crash, Steven has his eyes opened, and he decides to tell his wife (Leslie Mann) and anyone else who will listen that he is gay. I am not sure how they missed it. Even when I was a kid, I had my suspicions about male church organists....
Anyhoo, following this, Steven makes a change. Actually, back up. He had already moved the family to Texas and given up law enforcement after his birth mother rejected him. This was the beginning of his feeling that he was a man without an identity, and though his leaving his wife and kids to go to Miami and live, as he puts it, high on the homosexual hog doesn't really clear that question up, it does give him license to be whomever he desires. To keep himself and his boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro) in the lifestyle they've become accustomed to, Steven starts perpetrating false insurance claims and credit card fraud. These bad deeds catch up with him, as bad deeds are wont to do, and that's when Steven goes to prison. The first time.
It's inside the joint that Steven meets Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor) and, as the title suggest, falls in love. After securing his own release from prison, Steven poses as a lawyer and gets Phillip out, too. Incarceration hasn't taught him his lesson. It has only convinced him to go bigger with his cons the next time. The rest of I Love You Phillip Morris is a series of crimes and arrests, each one more outrageous than the last. And all done in the name of love.
I Love You Phillip Morris premiered nearly two years ago at the Sundance Film Festival, and it's been playing in other parts of the world since earlier this year. I don't know why it's taken so long to come to America. Maybe the studios were afraid Americans wouldn't know how to handle Jim Carrey gaying it up. Personally, if we're going to get upset over anything, it should be that someone let him go to the same barber who butchered Tom Hanks' hair in The Da Vinci Code. Despite this sartorial challenge, Carrey is excellent as Russell. It's the perfect kind of role for him: there is room for his malleable physicality and verbal exaggeration, but not so much room that he goes off the reservation. Phillip Morris gives the comedian the opportunity to put his charisma to use as never before. Ficarra and Requa choose to shoot many of his grifts by keeping a tight focus on Carrey's face. It's like he's looking straight at the audience, putting his voodoo on us, too. Damned if it doesn't work.
Because I don't think I Love You Phillip Morris would have come off half as well with a different actor in the lead. Despite the impressive supporting cast, it's a one-man show, and only someone with Carrey's dynamism can keep carrying the script when it falls short. Ficarra and Requa have trimmed the fat out of their story, and their picture is lean and fast-paced. They move through the various set-ups quickly, using a chatty voiceover to fill in the blanks. For the most part, it's very funny, and the story is audacious enough that you really want to know where it all goes.
If there is any failing, it's that I Love You Phillip Morris is maybe too aware of its own unbelievability. It's hard to put a finger on, but at times, the audacity feels forced. Or maybe it's just too slick, and that con man confidence is doubling back on itself. Is this like a cinematic game of chicken? We're just waiting for who blinks first, the movie or the moviegoer.
Chances are, it's going to be the moviegoer, because if there's one thing that I Love You Phillip Morris has going for it, it's true to itself--and, really, true to its hero--in that its greatest trait is also the hidden catch in its perfectly diabolical scheme. Luckily, the movie hits more than it misses, and I enjoyed myself overall. I Love You Phillip Morris is deftly plotted, good for some laughs, and winningly performed, so it doesn't really matter if it pulls off the long con. For the short haul, I was entertained.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.