It is becoming quite apparent that the programmers of the Sundance Film Festival were lovestruck this year. There have been several interesting and offbeat comedies on the subject, including but not limited to 500 Days of Summer (review) and Paper Heart (review coming). But perhaps the most intriguing of these love stories is the improbable, but factually based tale of a spectacularly resourceful and charismatic Texas conman named Steven Russell. He is the centerpiece of I Love You Phillip Morris, a film co-written and directed by Bad Santa writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.
The story begins with Russell, played by Jim Carrey, on his deathbed recalling the events of his life that led him there. He begins with his life in Texas as a happily married police officer who plays the organ at church, prays every night with his wife (Leslie Mann) and spends his off hours searching for the biological mother who gave him up as a child. That, and he’s gay. But after finding and being handily rejected by the mother who gave him up as a baby, Steven leaves his life and family behind to go out into the world and be his true, flamboyantly gay self. He moves to Miami, finds a boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro) and begins living the high life. He realizes quickly though, that a life of luxury is expensive, leading this resourceful former cop to turn to a life as a conman. But when his con work finally catches up with him, Steven is sent to prison where he meets, and almost instantly falls in love with Phillip Morris, played by Ewan McGregor. From there the story becomes a Don Quixote-esque story of a forlorn lover who cannot bear to be separated from his soul-mate. He will go to any lengths to be with Phillip, including but not limited to breaking out of jail on multiple occasions, impersonating Phillip’s lawyer and fraudulently becoming the CFO of a major corporation.
It is a preposterous story, but one that is completely relatable as so many of us can easily relate to being obsessed and love sick and wanting so badly to be with that someone special. What makes the film fly is how cleverly it is written. It plays out like a farce, but is so well-crafted and well-acted that it is deeply engaging and unmistakably fun. Jim Carrey gives an eccentric and charismatic performance, mixing some of his best absurdist stuff with some of the emotional range that we’ve seen from him in movies such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. His ability to give this character, an otherwise deplorable and selfish conman, reminds me of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in Catch Me If You Can. No matter how many lies he tells or how much destruction he causes, we are still moved by the more touching moments in his life. Ewan McGregor also gives a tender performance as the soft-spoken, effeminate Phillip.
Overall the film feels like a mixture between the silliness and absurdness of a Farrelly brothers movie, but with the intelligence of a Coen brothers flick. It is at times laugh out loud funny and at others very sad and touching. Through all of it, Jim Carrey’s performance shines brightest and really gives the film its life. The authenticity he gives to his character is the key to selling us this ridiculous but true story and keeping us entertained in the process. As well, it is one of his more even performances, in which he aptly finds balance between some of the Jim Carrey extremes that we’ve seen in the past. It could be — dare I say — one of his best.
Of course, there are a lot of American moviegoers who will be either turned off or interested purely based on the fact that this is a comedy about gay men. To the former, I say get over it. There are honest themes about love in this film that apply to any disposition. As well, the film does tow the line between the believable and the absolutely ridiculous. What you have to remember is that it is based upon the real life of Steven Russell, whose multiple prison escapes brought great shame to the state of Texas. His story is one that is truly stranger than fiction, and it has been translated into a warped and hilarious film, one with an abundance of liveliness and style. It’s not perfect, but it sure is fun and engaging.