I really liked this film, and hope it doesn't get lost in the holiday shuffle. An interview with the filmn's directors, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, should be up in January.
Until then, the movie is released in theaters today.
This review orginally appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina)
An annoying, recurring theme of most con movies (e.g., "Criminal," "Confidence") is the overuse of empty twists and turns to generate heat, while any loose ends are swept under the rug. It's enough to make audience members feel like chumps for investing any effort. "I Love You Phillip Morris" is from that genre, but first-time directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa offer a more fulfilling, more exciting variation: Can a con man drop the act and become himself?
Based on Steven McVicker's non-fiction book, "I Love You Phillip Morris" centers on Steven Russell (Jim Carrey), who when we meet him is as square and bland as unbuttered toast. He's a churchgoing cop in Virginia Beach, who is happily married to Debbie (Leslie Mann), a kind woman whose lengthy bedtime prayers threaten to become sermons. At work, Steven receives a box of documents that leads to his birth mother, who wants nothing to do with him. An angry Steven takes her welcome mat, quits the police force, and heads with the family to Texas. It's a troubling tipping point.
Steven loosens up considerably in Texas. He's friskier around Debbie and very frisky with gay men. A vicious car accident compels Steven to live life his way. He announces his homosexuality, leaves Debbie and their daughter, and moves to Miami, where he storms out of the closet with a vengeance, reveling in the nightlife with his hunky boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro) and enjoying his status as a man about town. There's just a problem. "Being gay," Steven tells us, "is really expensive." With career options limited, he starts committing insurance and credit card fraud. When the cops come for him at work, a petrified Steven's escape plan concludes with a botched jump from a hospital roof. (He misses the Dumpster.) It won't be the last time Steven goes to prison. And it won't be the last time he puts up a fight.
Despite his fears, Steven becomes a man of influence in the big house. He spends lots of time reading law books in the library, which is where he meets Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a blonde, blue-eyed Southern dandy. It's love at first sight. Steven is enchanted by Phillip's adorable innocence, and Phillip loves Steven's selflessness. Anything Phillip wants or needs, Steven manages to procure, whether it's a noisy neighbor being sent to the infirmary or steak at the commissary. Their love blooms until Steven is transferred and released. Using his newfound legal knowledge, Steven frees Phillip, and the two begin their life as free men. But it's built on an ever-growing pile of lies and deceit—Steven introduces himself to Phillip as an attorney, which he isn't—making it impossible for a normal relationship to bloom.
The great pleasure of watching "I Love You Phillip Morris" is that Ficarra and Requa (perhaps best known as the writing team behind "Bad Santa") don't celebrate Steven's abilities. He's portrayed as a pathetic soul so immersed in lies that he can't understand how he could hurt Phillip. By working on a bigger, more profitable lie, Steven believes he's being a good provider. For all of Steven's craftiness, he would have been a success if he had just followed the right avenues. He knows the legal system. As the CFO of a mega-company—a job he gets from a resume that's pure fiction—he makes his bosses millions. But because he's bored and can't stand his co-workers, Steven has no problem skimming from the top. It's another role for Steven to play, like family man or lawyer or prison ace. As long as he gets the gestures down, outthinks the others, and has a good poker face, he'll be OK. If he gets caught, he'll become someone else. Why stay in college? Why go to night school? Just be different this time.
So much of Carrey's filmography features outlandish characters (e.g., Ace Ventura, the Riddler), so playing a delusional, determined con man is right up his alley. The beauty of Carrey's work here is that he doesn't regurgitate his usual rubber-faced antics. He dials it back so that you see Steven Russell's struggle, not Steven Russell's struggle as interpreted by Jim Carrey, Movie Star. As Phillip, McGregor delivers a heartbreaking performance. He's delicate, too trusting, and forever loving. Those traits place him directly in Steven's path of destruction and make it impossible for him to thrive in the mainstream. Phillip needs protection. He lacks Steven's malleability, street smarts, and willingness to do whatever it takes.
Ficarra and Requa's biggest attribute as filmmakers is staying out of the story's way. As writers, their biggest asset, aside from their bitter humor, is to make Steven, the narrator, unreliable. The story stops and starts and contains at least once crucial scene that is probably flat-out false. It's an unabashedly deceptive movie, which makes it constantly entertaining and a little sad. Steven Russell doesn't even know what the truth is anymore. He's managed to con himself. A satisfied audience finally has its revenge. [R]