Jim Carrey as Steven Jay Russell
Ewan McGregor as Phillip Morris
Leslie Mann as Debbie Russell
Rodrigo Santoro as Jimmy Kemple
Brennan Brown as Larry Bukheim
Clay Chamberlin as Arnie
Antoni Corone as Lindholm
Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
If Jim Carrey’s Steven Jay Russell weren’t a real person, someone would have to create him.
A gay man living a standard Southern middle class life complete with wife and daughter, Russell chooses to throw off the conventions that have forced him to hide who he is. Unfortunately in the process, he also throws off the conventions that allow him to partake in regular society as he instead begins to lie, cheat and steal his way through life. On the down side this leads him inevitably to prison. On the upside it is in prison that he meets the love of his life, Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), the one real thing he can connect to in the ever-evolving swirl of deceit that is the life of a professional con man.
Extremely loosely adapted from Steve McVicker’s non-fiction account of Russell’s various cons and prison escape attempts, co-writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have made up for all the “Cats & Dogs” and “Bad News Bears” they’ve ever inflicted on us in their funny and thoughtful adaptation.
Like any good con man story it is ultimately a story not just of deception but of self-deception. Steven is smart enough to question why he lives the way he lives, what makes him steal and lie even when he knows what the end result is likely to be, while often coming up with few answers for the audience. He’s not sure why he does what he does, except that deep down inside he’s probably just a bad person. Maybe it’s tied to being given up for adoption by a mother who never wanted him. Who knows? All he knows for sure is that he just can’t help himself.
Much the same way he can’t help his feelings for soul mate Phillip. Even though his life would be infinitely easier–he’d be able to flee the country and stop getting sent back to prison for one–he just can’t let Phillip go, putting considerable effort into just seeing him one more time.
The ultimate point being the toll a life of deception takes on people, a not extremely subtle shading to Steven’s gay lifestyle as well, though an effective one. At first a seemingly happily married man living an outwardly socially-acceptable life in ’80s Georgia, a late night car accident spurs Steven to give up his life as a married police officer and come out of the closet. As with everything in his life, Steve jumps into this with gusto–a trait for which Carrey is admirably suited–moving to Miami and “living high on the gay hog.”
The film plays with the societal effects of hidden lifestyles quite a bit, with Steven and Phillip only ever to be open and somewhat normal about their relationship when they’re in prison together. In the outside world, Steven has to lie frequently not just to others about being gay but to Phillip also about what it is he does for a living, not wanting to explain that he’s neither a lawyer nor a credentialed CFO, he just plays one on TV in order to commit exceptional embezzlement and insurance fraud. Because he just can’t help himself. In one of the better ironies of the film, in fact, the only person Steven finds he can be completely open to his is ex-wife Debbie, played by Leslie Mann, who may be the only person who knows who the real Steven is (including Steven himself).
The movie mainly works because Carrey is just the right amount of outlandish to pull off Steven’s outsize personality and exploits without strangling willing suspension of disbelief. There is some customary Carrey mugging, but only a little and it’s wrapped around a charming and sympathetic portrayal, which is tougher than it sounds. If you just wrote down the facts of Steven’s life on paper, he would come across as an incredible weasel.
“I Love You Phillip Morris” is so tied to Carrey’s performance, however, that no one else gets much in the way of development, including the titular Phillip. McGregor is quite good, playing a sort of sweet and naïve southern belle, but his and Steven’s relationship, told largely though Steven’s point of view, often comes across as extremely cloying so it’s probably for the best he’s not around any more than he is.
The lack of depth outside of the main character isn’t particularly noticeable, however, thanks to some sharp dialogue that always draws a laugh and manages to make many of these people into distinct characters in their own right with few clichés despite the lack of screen time.
In fact, it’s the pull no punches ridiculousness of “I Love You Phillip Morris’s” screenplay that’s the real draw of the film. It has genuine wit and tenderness without sentimentality, and poses some real questions about the psychic dangers of deception. Charm, entertainment and depth are rare qualities in short supply, so savor it while you can.