Jim Carrey has played a cop, he's played a lawyer, and hell, he even played a bumbling con artist. It's just that—he's never played all three in the same movie, and never quite like this. In I Love You Phillip Morris, a fascinatingly odd little flick about a real-life, gay grifting jailbird who ultimately became the world's most audacious escape artist, Carrey gets a chance to anthologize his two decades as the sensei of cinema clownishness, as well as do his very best Frank Abagnale/Perez Hilton amalgamation. What we get for his trouble is an incredibly funny, kind of romantic, and seriously wacked-out piece of screwball dramedy.
The film begins with the tagline "This actually happened." Then a few moments later, "No really. This actually happened." We get clarification upfront about the outlandishness of the proceeding narrative, and it is outlandish. But the truth can, indeed, be stranger than fiction.
Carrey's Steven Russell is a closeted homosexual who lives a life of repressed, god fearing, do-gooderism. After a near fatal car crash, Steven decides to come clean about his sexuality, quit his job as a cop, and move to Florida to start a new fabulous life with a fella named Jimmy. Carrey, in all his big-tooth-grinning and limb-flapping glory, gets to do what he does best and flamboyantly slapstick his way through every scene. Accessorizing this and glamorizing that, the actor's trademark exuberance was perhaps never better suited for a role. The expressivity of the comedian and his character, as well as the tropes that have come to define such a lifestyle, fits like hand in glove. I'm surprised it took so long.
But Russell soon discovers that living the fab life gets expensive. Grifting, stealing, and cheating soon follows—so does a trip to the slammer. But there he meets a soft-spoken and kindhearted inmate oddly named Phillip Morris. Ewen McGregor as the titular Morris appears fully adore-ified for the role with sandy blonde highlights and sky blue eyes. Even more, McGregor plays him with syrupy sweet, lost puppy vulnerability, arriving like Russell's angelic counterpart with whom he is instantly smitten.
Of course opposites do attract: Morris is the king-of-the-comfortable-zone and doesn't even go into the exercise yard for fear of what they do to "blonde haired, blue-eyed queers"; Carrey's Russell is a remarkable testament to the sheer power of chutzpa. The guy is brash. After parole he pretends to be a lawyer with relative ease and then a faux-executive at a medical finance company, gaining wealth and respectability. And like before, he can't keep his hands out of the company pot (he's got to pay for the mansion and twin Mercedes convertibles after all). And the film's most essential question becomes: what drives Russell to delinquincy? It seems to be a compulsion, but perhaps it's a lost sense of identity, or possibly his delusions about it takes to be loved by someone else. In any case, troubles afoot and everything is at stake, including the man of his dreams, Phillip Morris.
Fashionably directed by Glen Ficarra and John Requa, I Love You Phillip Morris is a peculiar, shape-shifter of a movie. Sometimes it’s hilarious, like when Russell's blatant homoeroticism begins to invade the frame with phallic symbols in clouds or a loaf of bread conveniently placed between two bagels. Other times it’s glowingly romantic, thanks to the work of the two leads. We get a sudden shift to mawkish tragedy and are then smacked back to Carrey's physical antics just as quickly. The film's tonal hopscotch manages to be part of its charm, as if we were the targets of Russell's bamboozlement all along. In the same vein, the film works best as it moves through its diverse pieces: part caper, part iron-bar-romance, and part Jim Carrey sample platter, all adding up to an entertainingly wacky whole made all the wackier because it actually happened. No really. It did.