'I Love You Phillip Morris': Strange but true

Jim Carrey (right) as Steven Russell and Rodrigo Santoro as an early love, Jimmy, who dies of AIDS. Russell meets Phillip Morris in prison.
Jim Carrey (right) as Steven Russell and Rodrigo Santoro as an early love, Jimmy, who dies of AIDS. Russell meets Phillip Morris in prison.
Posted: December 17, 2010

Nothing to do with the tobacco industry and everything to do with obsession and ardor, I Love You Phillip Morris begins with the familiar pretitle memo that the following is based on a true story. Or, to quote more accurately: "This really happened. . . . It really did."

And certainly, as this increasingly outrageous tale unfolds, the old saw that truth is stranger than fiction becomes a slogan to be mounted on a billboard, limned in neon, all caps, in 3-D.

Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the wordsmiths behind the gleefully dark Bad Santa, I Love You Phillip Morris stars Jim Carrey as Steven Russell, a gentleman and a scholar (his IQ has been clocked at 163) now serving a 144-year sentence in a Texas prison.

But as Ficarra and Requa's film begins, Russell is a Virginia Beach cop, married (to the always game, giggly Leslie Mann), a seemingly affable, regular guy. Except that Steven has been living a secret life - he's gay.

And then, one day, separated from the missus and doing time for credit card fraud or identity theft or some other illegal skill, he meets the mild-mannered Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), and cartoon songbirds go off in his head. It's love at first sight, and it becomes Steven's mission to arrange their exit from jail and live happily ever after.

And, for quite a time, and with quite a few phony identities and resum├ęs, this they do. (At one point, Steven is hired as chief financial officer of a medical insurance company, where he proceeds to embezzle huge sums.)

Carrey, an actor not known for his restraint, literally beams as Russell, who earned the sobriquet "King Con" and who is now the subject of a petition campaign to reduce his daunting prison term. Yes, some familiar Carrey tactics are on display, but the star's performance has real heart - it's easily the best thing he has done since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

And McGregor, playing his lover, is a perfect foil: gentle, funny, magnetic. Ultimately, Phillip becomes exasperated by Steven's epic deceptions. But not before he's been sent to prison and escaped from prison several times over.

A gay love story that's handled straight (no pun intended), I Love You Phillip Morris has had a difficult time getting to theaters. It screened at Sundance in January 2009, and it's taken this long (just shy of two years!) to find its way to screens. It's a safe bet that the wariness on the part of distributors was not due to the film's glorification of criminal behavior.

What it does glorify, however, is mad love, mad money, and an almost mad zeal to run free.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/

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