Adapted from a journalistic book and, more importantly, the real-life exploits of conman Steven Russell, I Love You Phillip Morris is the incredibly true adventure of two inmates in love. Jim Carrey brings his elastic panache to the role of Russell with Ewan McGregor as the namesake Phillip Morris, Steven’s lover, muse, and unwitting partner in crime.
From the get-go, there is something different about Russell. Perhaps, as an early scene suggests, it’s because he’s adopted? He gives an honest shot at an honest life — taking a job as a cop and being a steadfast Christian husband to his chirpy wife Debbie (Leslie Mann). But the perfunctory way he performs his professional and conjugal duties indicates that he won’t last long. In a last, existential stab at the simple life, he seeks out his birth mother, who promptly slams the door in his face (he makes off with her welcome mat “cause it’s a lie” — a small hint of what’s to come). Indeed, when one door closes another opens. Steven’s saving grace is a car accident that frightens him out of complacency. He vows to shake off the shackles of obedience and live the life he has always felt was his birthright. In his case, this means embracing his inner fabulous — declaring that he’s gay, moving to Miami, buying mini dogs, and falling in love.
Trouble is, as he puts it, “being gay is really expensive.” This is delivered in mock-hushed tones, following a fun montage of the fruits of his spoils. And spoils they are — Russell’s meager earnings don’t support even a semi-fabulous life, and he quickly slips into white-collar crime, committing a dizzying array of fraud. This lands him, after several unsuccessful escape attempts, in prison. That is where his life truly changes when he meets his soul mate Phillip. Although cell blocks separate them, they pass love notes through the bars, and a true romance blossoms between headstrong Steven and bashful Phillip. This love affair will carry them through multiple prison terms, not to mention the imprisoning compulsions of Steven’s various schemes. He is perpetual motion to Phillip’s quiet devotion, and though both are tested, this is ultimately a good old-fashioned love story.
Interestingly, there’s no hazy glow to accompany the orchestra swells. The directors know their tone and wisely chose to make a visually stylized film to complement the bantering nature of the dialogue. The vernacular is pure advertising, saturated colors and blue skies. Even in prison, everything is warm and bright (do inmates really wear canary yellow uniforms?). The story spins along at a good clip, pausing only for comedic effect. It has a way of picking you up and taking you along — the audience doesn’t have much work to do. The romantic scenes between Carrey and McGregor are sweet, and both give open, embodied performances. They thankfully lack the sense of labored duty that can sometimes be read in the movements of straight actors playing gay. They truly seemed to be enjoying themselves. And Carrey’s lanky frame and expressive face are a boon to Steven Russell’s character — his crimes and identity shifts aren’t about money or notoriety (though those do come to him), but about the conman’s pure enjoyment of grift. Even when the film takes a dramatic and dark twist in the final act, we can sense Carrey’s trademark grin straining beneath. Although light as air and a bit odd, I Love You Phillip Morris is likeable enough.