I Love You, Phillip Morris might have been the best love story of 2010. So what if it was based on the true story of Steven Russell (Jim Carrey), a happily married local police officer who forsakes his conventional life after a car accident and becomes a con man extraordinaire who winds up falling for Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), his bunkmate during his first stint in prison? Love is a tricky thing though, and this film from the writing-directing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa proves that love might also be the biggest con game of all.
First off, audiences will ask themselves repeatedly if this really is based on a true story because Russell loves to go big and bold. When he walks away from that car accident, he emerges as a new man, a loud and proud gay man, a stereotypical cliché. At first, he goes for quick money scams and the liberal use of credit cards. He’s fast and out of control, yet even during his wildest moments, he never fails to send a healthy share back to the wife (Leslie Mann) and children he left behind. Later on, he slips back into the closet, another hidden world, where he rises up the corporate ranks of the old boy network, sticking it to a willing culture and society that seemingly wants to be deceived. That’s the only explanation that makes any sense because Russell is so obviously not what he appears.
Of course, by the time he starts getting caught and sent to prison, Russell falls hard and fast for Morris and begins wheeling and dealing to snare Morris’ heart. He’s playing this game for keeps and somewhere along the way it becomes clear that the biggest fool is Russell himself. He proves willing to do anything for love, but loses perspective. He wants Morris to love and stay with him forever, yet after awhile, even Morris starts to question who Russell truly is. Russell disappears in the masks and intricate illusions he creates. In the end, all he has is his belief in love. So, it comes down to performance and the performer. Carrey, the ultimate clown prince, just wants to be loved and here, for all of Russell’s crazy antics, Carrey understands that he doesn’t need to push the envelope or stretch himself and his silly putty face to the breaking point or beyond. He can rein it in a bit; in fact, he must or he runs the risk of alienating the audience. The character is already too much, too flamboyant, too much like a broad Jim Carrey creation.
Which means Carrey, much like the great trickster, endeavors to pull off the great con of them all; he attempts to convince us that he’s not funnyman Jim Carrey or even Jim Carrey the thespian we’ve come to expect from The Truman Show or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This Carrey, this performer, is just a crazy fool in love, in love with McGregor (an adorably naïve scammer himself in this role).
It is a lot to ask and the stakes are simply too high for him to succeed in the awards season arena among his peers who can afford to play it safe (by comparison), but this isn’t some winner-take-all game. There is so much to love in the chances Carrey and McGregor take. Love is blindness, but I Love You, Phillip Morris makes us want to see this couple achieve some measure of happiness. And you know that just like the real-life Russell, Carrey will keep trying to make it happen. (tt stern-enzi)