Jim Carrey is a phenomenal actor who also occasionally chooses to star in great films. And though he’s recently had a string of duds, I Love You Phillip Morris — opening this Friday in some theaters — shows him back at the top of his manic-but-poignant game.
Based on a true story, I Love You Phillip Morris uses flashbacks to recount the wild, love-wrought life of con man Steven Jay Russel, played by Carrey. As the movie opens, the audience learns that Russel is apparently dying, and that long ago he was happily married, religious, and a cop.
After a car accident, however, Russel cuts the charade. He comes out of the closet as a gay man, moves to Florida, and eventually starts pulling insurance scams as a way of financing the opulent lifestyle he associates with homosexuality. At this point the film is still getting started, so of course Russel gets caught and sent to prison, where he meets the charming, even demure Phillip Morris, played by Ewan McGregor.
The two men fall in love, and Russel spends the rest of the movie trying to be with Morris. Though he succeeds at times, Russel’s propensity for — and prodigious talent at — lying conspire to keep the lovers apart. And while that must have been heart-wrenching for the real-life men, it actually makes for a fantastic series of criminal escapades.
Most famously, Russel manages to escape from prison over and over again, using an increasingly complex — and entertaining — series of cons and deceptions. He also lies his way into doing a stint as a business executive, and spends a lot of money. The end product is sort of like a gayer, funnier, and ultimately much sadder version of Catch Me If You Can.
Like other films that attempt to cover vast amounts of time or that aim for a satirical, technicolor crescendo, this one isn’t perfect. Some moments feel sutured together indelicately, giving the story inconsistent cohesion and a tone somewhere between Dr. Strangelove and an Enzyte commercial. At other times, minor characters — notably Russel’s first boyfriend, played by Rodrigo Santoro, and his wife, played by Leslie Mann — feel more like archetypes than people. And though the film makes use of these issues for comedic effect, they don’t always come together.
But despite its flaws, I Love You Phillip Morris is a romp of a movie. Carrey will deservedly draw praise for his performance, which, with McGregor’s also-worthy turn and a smart script, keeps the film hopping from one splashy shakedown to another. What results is a story that stays largely balanced in the satisfying, often sought but rarely reached realm of tragi-comedy.
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