Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) was a happily married cop until a serious car accident forces him to reassess his life. He comes out of the closet and embraces his homosexuality, reveling in his extravagant new lifestyle. To keep it up, though, he must resort to elaborate illegal schemes to secure the money he needs but ends up in the state penitentiary doing time for fraud. He meets another con (Ewan McGregor), they fall in love and Steve declares “I Love You Phillip Morris.”
Based on the true life exploits of Steven Jay Russell and adapted from the book by Steve McVicker, first time writers-directors John Requa and Glen Ficarra take an exciting life story of crime, prison escapes and impersonations, including a judge, and make it a mild, sensitive love story. I would have preferred more of the former and less of the latter.
Jim Carrey gives an over the top tragic-comic performance as Steve Russell, a man with a genius IQ and the cold heart of a con man. Even as Steve falls in love with soft-spoken and sensitive Phillip, he is always looking for a way out of prison. With each escape (and Russell performs many), he uses his freedom to get the love of his life out of prison. Carrey plays it too over the top, however, and his performance lacks subtlety. The actor overwhelms the character, making his Steve Russell a caricature instead. Ewan McGregor gives a sensitive performance of a sensitive man, though oft-times he appeared too needy and pathetic. (Man up, Phillip.) Supporting cast, led by Leslie Mann as the Betty Boop voiced ex-wife Debbie, are background only.
The inexperience of Regua and and Ficarra shows as they give their star free reign. A sterner hand at the helm and word processor is needed to balance “I Love You Phillip Morris” and draw a performance, rather than just mugging for the camera, from Jim Carrey. Reading up on the life of Steven Jay Russell after seeing the film tells me that the tyro writing-directing team left the best of his story out of the film. I give it a C.
Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) was brought up as a conservative Christian, but his inner con man already began to show itself when, working as a policeman, he used their databases to search for his birth mother. He switched to food management using fake credentials. Then after a life-altering car crash, the father of Stephanie realized that not only was he gay, but he was flamboyantly gay. Conning to support the lifestyle landed him in jail, but Russell could always find a silver lining and that arrived in the form of the love of his life in "I Love You Phillip Morris."
"Bad Santa" Writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa adapted Steven McVicker's book for their directorial debuts and apparently had a difficult time editing their material. "I Love You Phillip Morris" certainly has an interesting story, a gay "Catch Me If You Can," and some good performances, but the filmmakers have tried to cram too much in and their film's title only addresses one of their story lines, one which doesn't even crop up until the film's well underway. In fact, changing the film's title would have gone a long way to dispel notions of overload, but they'd still need to correct some tonal issues. Yet, the film is entertaining while also indicting justice, Texas style.
Ficarra and Requa pile on the Christian conservatism thickly. Squeaky clean Russell plays the Church organ and marries uber religious Debbie (Leslie Mann, "Funny People"), a woman who'd rather bake cookies than have sex. Shock cut to her husband going at it, with a new male neighbor we've just met at a backyard barbecue. Russell's birth mother issues are forgotten. He moves to Florida and hooks up with Jimmy (Rodrigo Santoro, "300," "Che"), eventually figuring out he'll need a real job for the flash clothes and hot cars, so he fakes his way into a medical management company as CFO and begins indulging in insurance fraud. He wins the heart of Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor, "Ghost Writer," in his second career redefining role of the year), and, acting as his lawyer(!), eventually gets them both out of jail, but when Phillip insists he stay on the up and up, Steven assures him he has. Only he doesn't. When he later pulls off his most outrageous prison escape plan, Phillip, who's also unhappily in jail as an accomplice, isn't in on it and is made to suffer.
Carrey's entertaining in the role of Russell, but it is not a natural performance, rather a caffeinated cartoon, which defines the film as a broad comedy. But the relationship with Morris is played fairly straight ('ahem') by McGregor, convincing as the romantic, needy Morris, directed to zig while Carrey zags. Reining in Carrey may have smoothed out the film. Leslie Mann, an actress whose consistent film appearances may be due to her marriage to Judd Apatow, is a surprise here, her Debbie maintaining her perky cheer and support of Steven after having been left for the other team. It's an unexpected choice that works.
The filmmakers do have a knack for the comedy montage - a bit on the cushy life Russell's enabled him and his love in jail is laugh out loud funny - and their pacing keeps a con's beat. The film sometimes appears overlit, its images washed out.
Closing credits offer some astonishing facts about how Russell's escapades, embarrassing to the George W. Bush Governorship, landed him a life sentence for white collar crime. Phillip Morris's whereabouts are left a mystery.
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