By Brian Orndorf
“I Love You Phillip Morris” is a tricky film to decipher. Garnering unnecessary attention for its homosexual content, the picture is actually more of a fleet-footed con artist valentine, paying reverence to a master of deception, Steven Jay Russell. A comedic excursion into the limits of personal freedom and the miracle of love, the picture is a skilled effort of constant surprise, led wonderfully by Jim Carrey, who gives a blessedly respectful performance that mingles pleasingly with laughs and shock.
Steven (Jim Carrey) is a seemingly happy family man living a life of service as a local cop. When a car accident clears his head of domestic obligation, Steven goes on to embrace his suppressed homosexuality, finding the new lifestyle murder on his bank account. Embarking on a series of profitable con games, Steven is soon caught and sent to prison, where he quickly masters the system of favors and revenge. Into his life comes Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a younger inmate who takes an immediate shine to Steven’s odd sense of confidence. The two become lovers, developing an unbreakable bond that’s tested when the state endeavors to separate the two. Slipping back into his skills of deception, Steven makes a grand effort to return to Phillip’s arms, hoping their love can be rekindled, despite his addiction to role-playing in massive acts of fraud.
I suppose there’s to be some expectation of bite when the screenwriters of “Bad Santa” (Glenn Ficarra and John Requa) decide to make their directorial debut. However, “I Love You Phillip Morris,” despite many opportunities to treat the characters from an acidic perspective, keeps the shenanigans amazingly light and sporadically emotional. The premise is familiar (think of it as the gay cousin of “Catch Me if You Can”), but the tone stands at attention, weaving between broad acts of deception and intimate declarations of love between these men, who’ve finally found a sense of peace from their hectic lives in each other’s arms.
“I Love You” isn’t a farce, despite Carrey’s occasional (and welcome) rascally business, but more on the metered side, permitting the actor time to find a passion within Steven, instead of playing his games of fraud as calculated opportunities for the rubber-faced one to pratfall his way around the frame. It’s a fantastic performance from Carrey, who expresses a knotted desperation here that keeps the film moving along through extended confidence games and tense moments of awareness, as Steven happily engages in troublemaking to boost his financial appeal, only to find himself eventually stymied and on the run from the law. Carrey tones down his primary colors and expresses a compulsion within Steven that urges him to sustain his commitment to Phillip at any cost, even taking him down a dark path of medical complication. McGregor is unexpectedly gentle here as the prized lover, but Carrey elevates the episodic structure of the screenplay, communicating Steven’s heartfelt pull toward illegal activities and his sense of loyalty, providing needed laughs along the way.
Requa and Ficarra keep the feature frothy, carried forward by a bouncy score from Nick Urata, while slowly revealing a disarming sincerity. There’s a confidence with the material that’s heartening, sustaining the film’s entertainment value while taking a few darkly comic detours, one that leads to a wicked, bravely tasteless third-act twist. “I Love You Phillip Morris” is a difficult film to encapsulate quickly, with the picture’s challenging narrative and peculiar funny bone better experienced in motion rather than recounted.