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I Love You, Phillip Morris

Jim Carrey in "I Love You, Phillip Morris"

Carrey On

I Love You, Phillip Morris

It is almost exactly two years since this comedy starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor premiered to largely positive reviews at the Sundance film festival. Granted Carrey’s star has somewhat ebbed in recent years, but his last film (Yes Man) still did $229 million at the worldwide box office, proving he still has box office clout.

Yet I Love You, Phillip Morris, which is about not smoking but rather the career of a con man who pulled off an astonishing range of scams in the 1990s, was rejected by all of the major studios and even most of the independent distributors.

Could it be because the Carrey and McGregor characters are also gay?

Of course it is. And you can just hear the gnashing of teeth of studio executives as they pleaded with Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the writers of Bad Santa making their directorial debut here, to tweak their script just a little. After all, they surely argued, it’s not a story about gayness: It could even anger a segment of the gay market. And what’s left would be a classic Jim Carrey comedy that would please most of his fans and probably even win him some new ones with a story that is several rungs above his usual slapstick vehicles.

But, as the opening titles point out, “This really happened. It really did!” And necessarily so, because you’d be unlikely to believe much of it otherwise. Like Catch Me If You Can and the Tony Curtis classic The Great Imposter, or the cancelled-too-soon Eddie Izzard series The Riches, I Love You, Phillip Morris gleefully tells the story of a man who managed to bend the system to his own desires. We wouldn’t ever want to run afoul of characters like these, who are both genius and sociopath, but it’s hard not to be entertained as they find a way around every restriction life puts in their paths.

Carrey plays Steven Russell, who narrates his story from a hospital bed, telling us that “Love is the reason I’m layin’ here dyin.” We learn soon enough not to trust entirely what he tells us: The model of an unreliable narrator, he forgets or declines to fill us in on certain facts until such time as it suits him.

His story starts when, as a boy, he learns that he was adopted, a discovery that warps the trajectory of his life. (My wife is an adoptee, and she says the film makes perfect sense as the ultimate story of adoptee over-compensation.) Steven starts his adult life in model form, with a wife (Leslie Mann) and daughter, working for the police and playing organ at their Georgia church.

Yet before the first reel is out, Steven has begun a new life as a gay playboy in Miami. Not a person to do things by half measures, he discovers that “being gay is really expensive.” And, having only a high school education, he turns to scams to support his lifestyle. This lands him in prison, where he meets the love of his life, a soft-spoken, somewhat dim-witted but good-natured fellow oddly named Phillip Morris (McGregor).

Steven puts his skills to work manipulating the prison systems (official and underground) so that he and Phillip become cellmates. That their love doesn’t need to “dare not speak its name” is shown in an idyllic sequence which is probably the part of the film that has most upset homophobes. (It’s also the part of the film that gives Carrey a chance actually to act.)

When circumstances separate them, Steven’s life spirals into an endless series of schemes to reunite them: getting first himself and then Phillip released from prison, building a new life for them by ripping off an investment company, coping with prison again after that scheme falls apart. (Steven’s brilliance is for getting things done, not for maintaining them.)

Ficarra and Requa temper the incredible parts of Steven’s story (and the hyperactive, if less so than usual, performance of their star) by keeping the tone light. Alternately giddy and breezy, it never becomes as outrageous as it might be, certainly less than you would expect from the creators of the bad-taste classic Bad Santa. They have a particular fondness for putting mayhem off-screen and getting comedy by showing only characters’ reactions to it.

The movie’s ultimate accomplishment may be to make you read up on the real Steven Russell, currently serving a life sentence in solitary confinement. (His worst crime, clearly, was to embarrass the Texas prison authorities by making fools of them time and time again.) And reading about him makes you wish that a different movie had been made from his story, perhaps a documentary: His life is fascinating but too messy to fit into a standard format, even one as structure-bending as this.

Carrey presumably took this role as one that would show he can act while still providing the kind of comic mayhem his fans demand. It’s a shame that so many of them (to judge by the internet message boards) won’t go anywhere near this: It’s an effort that deserves to be rewarded.

Watch the trailer for I Love You, Phillip Morris

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