I Love You Phillip Morris has endured a long and arduous journey to theaters, and it’s easy to see why: Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the writing team behind 2003’s deliriously dark Bad Santa, Phillip Morris is a balls-to-the-wall black comedy that weaves together a story of a flamboyant con man, an AIDS subplot, suicide attempts, prison gags and at least one graphic gay sex scene into a decorative throw rug enveloping a tender love story. I’m sure the pitch meetings were murder.
Jim Carrey stars as Steven Russell, a closeted, church-going family man who yearns to connect with his birth mother who gave him up. He uses his idyllic home life as a – it turns out – temporary filler for the love he desperately craves. One day, he wrecks his car and the near-death experience empowers him to chase the gay, criminal lifestyle he was apparently destined for all along. The problem is that he’s not great at getting away with his scams and ends up in prison a lot.
During one of those stays – he’s a master escape artist – he meets Phillip Morris (a sparkling Ewan McGregor), a gentle, wide-eyed Southern sweetheart who falls for Steven Russell. I hesitate to say Russell falls for Morris, however; Russell certainly seems mad for Morris and goes to great lengths to be with him, but given Russell’s constant itch for reinvention, I believe he would have been going to those lengths for a screwdriver. Because he’s such a peerless liar – a Method actor, almost – he may not know that himself, but it speaks to Carrey’s bravura performance that none of us, not even Steven Russell, will ever know what’s real and what’s not within him.
With each new escape and phony career, the movie loses a bit of steam, and by the end one would give anything for some truth from the guy. But that’s not Steven Russell – the film is based on a true story; the real Russell is currently serving 144 years in solitary confinement – and Ficarra and Requa have the confidence to keep him slippery until the very end, which makes for a satisfying and often very funny film. But it’s clearly no kind of life.
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