He may have been adopted, but it doesn’t prevent him from being the best person he can be. Although that person, Steven Russell (Jim Carrey), is living a lie. He’s not-so-happily-married to his devoutly religious wife Debbie (Leslie Mann) and uses his job as a small town police officer to locate his birth mother, but isn’t thrilled with the results. After getting in a car accident, he realizes he should be living life to the fullest, which involves being openly homosexual, flamboyant and extremely frivolous.Being gay is incredibly expensive, and without a college education, Steven’s options are limited – he resorts to injuring himself in department stores for insurance money or committing credit card fraud. He’s a successful conman for a while, sending wads of cash to Debbie during the holidays, and buying expensive jewelry for his boyfriend. When the law catches up to him, he winds up in prison, where he meets blonde-haired, blue-eyed Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). The two fall in love and Steven sets about doing everything he can, including continuing his scams, now oriented more toward lying through his teeth and getting lucky with a bit of persuasion skills, to make their life rich and fruitful. Unfortunately, the police keep catching up with Steven, causing him to continually lose and then struggle to regain Phillip’s companionship.
Jim Carrey adopts an accent that sounds like a highly exaggerated version of Jim Carrey, complete with overactive facial expressions and flailing appendages. Light and silly music accompanies Carrey’s light and silly narration. What isn’t so airy is the bold subject matter: graphic gay sex, graphic prison sex innuendo and dialogue, graphic prison violence, and graphic prison language.
Some of the humor is effective, such as when Steven and Phillip dance to a love song while an enormous neighboring prisoner curses out guards and gets beaten up, or when Russell makes a serious paralegal phone call with the court demanding adjudication, then returns to his job at a grocery store deli counter to serve a customer – it’s a perfect match to the harsh material used to demonstrate romance in a prison environment. His new career as a lawyer gives him plenty of opportunities to run highly intelligent scams in the vein of Catch Me If You Can, although it’s never expanded upon how exactly he became so smart, first with scams, then with paperwork, presentations and money and later with Mission: Impossible type evasion tactics and impersonating. Apparently he simply did a lot of reading. Posing as a Chief Financial Officer for a multimillion dollar company and breaking out of prison repeatedly seems like it would take a bit more than that to be completely convincing.
Full of visual surprises, I Love You Phillip Morris is just the kind of role Carrey needed to stir up some controversy and give him another chance to be seen in a slightly new light on the big screen. Ewan McGregor also turns in an unpredictable performance, adeptly sharing the spotlight. Shocking and unconventional for well-known stars and a mainstream film, it’s certainly never a bore. Perhaps most interesting of all is its “based on a true story” origins from a book by Steve McVicker about the real-life con artist, imposter and multiple prison escapee that made a laughingstock of Texas’ judicial system.- Mike Massie