It’s funny because it’s true. That’s the idea behind the mad-love story I Love You Phillip Morris, which gets its kicks by being much stranger than fiction.
In one of his patented larger-than-life performances, Jim Carrey plays Steven Russell, a churchgoing deputy police officer in Virginia leading a seemingly “straight”-forward suburban life with his wife Debbie (Leslie Mann). In fact, Steven is gay on the downlow, taking a string of lovers behind his wife’s back. After a disastrous search for his biological mother and a yet greater shock to his system, Steven determines to stop living a lie, relocates to Miami, and begins living high on the hog with a new boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro).
Steven quickly becomes a swindler to support his expensive new lifestyle. Adept at working the system and even more adept at lying, Steven talks his way into a corporate corner office and parlays the job into a lucrative embezzlement scheme. But it’s all prologue to his first stretch in jail, where he falls in love at first sight with fellow inmate Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). Gentle and sincere, Phillip compliments the confident, go-getting Steven. In short order, Steven arranges for them to be cellmates. Suddenly, we’re in the very un-P.C. comedy version of “Brokeback Mountain,” with the couple tenderly slow dancing to “Chances Are” as, within earshot, guards brutally beat a prisoner.
That kind of perverse joke is I Love You Phillip Morris’ bread and butter, so if you’re already offended, take a pass. But in adapting Steve McVicker’s non-fiction book, screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Bad Santa) understandably adopt an audacious tone. Like The Informant, this story just gets weirder as it goes along, with Russell pulling jaw-dropping legal chicanery and multiple prison escapes, all in the name of love for Morris. The narrative bite and twisted, even cruel humor suit the true-crime elements, but also balance what’s at heart a story of the extremes to which people will go for all-consuming love.
Ficarra and Requa make their directing debut here, and they have a keen comic instinct, enabling funny details that, while hardly realistic in style, make the story feel “lived in.” One early scene finds Carrey and Mann vigorously drinking milk, both a character quirk and a symbol of something being off in their seemingly conservative life. Live-action cartoon Carrey proves smart casting, since he’s equally capable of mining laughs and conveying Russell’s strong, dark emotional undertow. In the “wife” role, McGregor gets a unique opportunity, and he wisely chooses to be Carrey’s subtle counterpart.
The tragedy in this cruelly funny tragicomedy comes from Russell’s self-destructive inability for his happiness—and that of Morris—ever to be enough. “I don’t care about the money,” Morris tells his sugar daddy. “All I want is you.” The pathological liar’s response? “I would never lie to you.” One thing is certain: Russell chose freedom and never looked back. They can lock him up, but his heart is free for good.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]