REVIEW: I Love You Phillip Morris [2010]

“I tend to do that … hide things”

There is a reason Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s film, based on the writings of Steve McVicker, is called I Love You Phillip Morris. Lead character, and real-life con man, Steven Jay Russell is at his core a pronoun who loved. Without a real identity to call his own—Russell was adopted when he was born, became a cop only to find his biological mother, married and had a daughter despite having gay affairs, and reinvented himself as any number of professionals, lawyer to financial officer, to keep his extravagant ‘gay lifestyle’ intact—this man had no true persona. Life was about the excitement of the chase, the ease of stealing and escaping police custody too enticing to stop. Always knowing that he’d one day need to settle down and go straight—occupationally, that is—new job opportunities began with lies and never ceased to eventually bore him into finding new ways to score extra cash. If this film shows anything besides giving its audience a fun, comedic romp steeped in non-fiction, it’s that Steven Russell is one of the smartest men alive and the state of Texas is in need of major bureaucratic overhaul.

Beginning with Jim Carrey’s Russell on his deathbed, the actor’s narration whisks us away to where it all began—the fateful day young Steven learns his parents bought him from a woman at the hospital with a bag of cash. It is the first identity crisis of many as the boy attempts to juggle his need for ‘normal’ Southern life and his desires as a publicly closeted gay man. His duality in adulthood couldn’t be more disparate considering his marriage was with a highly religious, God-has-a-plan type, Debbie (Leslie Mann in a great turn against her usually more promiscuous roles as a gorgeous and sex-crazed Jesus-freak who uses ‘cheese and crackers’ in lieu of curse words), and his lover a Brazilian heartthrob in Rodrigo Santoro’s Jimmy. Retaining a congenial relationship with the mother of his child—regular phone calls and boxes of cash for holidays—he works his day job and scams morning, noon, and night for scratch to afford weekend hotel stays, designer watches, and the hottest clubs in Florida. A horrific car crash brought him out of the closest and an arrest for fraud lands him in jail to begin yet another chapter in his crazy life.

And here is when Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor) arrives. Both homosexual, white-collar criminals, they do their best to stay out of the spotlight. Morris spends his time in his cell to avoid the horrors of the yard and Russell frequents the library where he reads up on the law. Catching a passing glimpse of the man who’d eventually be the love of his life, Steven falls right back into his lies, pretending to be a lawyer who can help Phillip’s friend. The spark ignites quickly, and the two become inseparable once Russell’s connections and clout allows for easy communication, (courtesy of a scene-stealing supporting role from Michael Mandel as Cleavon, who’s word is his bleepin’ bond), and roommate living conditions. The con man soon gets released, poses as an attorney, gets his boyfriend out, and all appears to be a bright future of happiness. But complacency sets in, a need for money rears its head, and Steven finds himself lying his way into an insurance firm as CFO, somehow having the brains and learning curve to make the company millions, all while skimming a nice illegal commission for his troubles.

Definitely a mentally imbalanced man, it is Russell’s second run-in with the authorities and second ‘is it real or isn’t it’ suicide attempt that breaks through to his humanity. Discovering he has been a shell of a man his entire life, selfishly hurting those who loved him as unconscious revenge towards the mother who left him behind, Steven realizes the error of his way and the need to make good with Phillip if it’s the last thing he does. Unfortunately, the only way he knows how to do so is by going on the lam and cheating his way back. Give the filmmakers credit for taking the chance on Jim Carrey to make Russell come alive. Going back to strict comedies of late, despite a series of critically acclaimed roles at the start of the decade, one could almost call him a liability for such a small budget film. The genius of it all, though, is that I can’t think of anyone else who could better embody the misguided compassion and completely wacky left turns this character takes. Utilizing his elastic facial expressions, his natural born gift for physical comedy, and the little-used, but highly effective, ability to create empathy despite his criminal actions, Carrey hits a homerun.

I Love You Phillip Morris is crafted in a quasi-hyper-real universe with over-the-top characters and broad performances, but that simply buys into the game of it all. Russell is living life by the seat of his pants, unable to stop his urge to live the high life and dupe those less educated, which is pretty much everyone. While he is at the forefront, putting Carrey’s face onscreen every second of the way, McGregor isn’t forgotten. The more sensitive and feminine of the couple, Morris needs to show naïve innocence and unfiltered love for the man who took an interest in him. He holds a grin throughout the film, yet never turns it into a joke. He’s playing the doting wife not asking questions due to his blind trust. And this is where Ficarra and Requa excel in their direction, constantly making the audience believe in their adoration for one another. The story jumps around at times, setting itself up for sight gags and fun jump cuts to unimagined places, and somehow always contains enough subtly in the insanity to keep viewers invested. The surprises never end, ultimately leaving us with an hilarious final stroke of bad luck, letting us laugh with the characters despite their wealth of tragedy.

I Love You Phillip Morris 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

photography:
[1] Jim Carrey as Steven Russell and Ewan McGregor as Phillip Morris in I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS, directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Photo Credit: Patti Perret
[2] Jim Carrey as Steven Russell in I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS, directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Photo by Patti Perret
[3] Jim Carrey stars as Steven Russell and Ewan McGregor stars as Phillip Morris in Roadside Attractions’ I Love You Phillip Morris (2010)

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