Jim Carrey gets to show off the best of what he can do in "I Love You Phillip Morris," both the physical comedy he made his name on and the unexpected tenderness that has crept into his later, more dramatic work.
Here, he uses that whole range to play a gay con-man driven by love, giving a consistently charming, breezy performance in a film that frequently feels inconsistent in tone.
The directing debut of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who wrote the awesomely inappropriate "Bad Santa," veers a bit jarringly between its humorous, serious and romantic moments. But Carrey, as real-life scam artist Steven Russell, is never short of fascinating to watch. The story is so incredible, you're constantly wondering what outlandish scheme he'll perpetrate next. (A quick intro to the film assures us: "This really happened. It really did.")
Ficarra and Requa's script, based on the book by former Houston Chronicle investigative reporter Steven McVicker, follows Steven Russell's many creative efforts to procure money, then break out of jail each time he's caught. But before embarking on that life of crime, he's a mild-mannered husband and father, living a proper Christian life and working as a police officer. Only when he has a serious car accident does he realize he's been living a lie all this time: He's actually gay. This inspires him to leave his wife (Leslie Mann), move to Miami, take up with a hot young man and a couple of miniature pinschers and live the kind of party-boy life that requires several credit cards (and fake IDs) to support.
Carrey's charisma and huge smile are on full display in these scenes, as his character is finally enjoying himself in a way he never has before. He's probably just a good guy doing bad things, and it's hard not to root for him to succeed. His many cons and frauds land him in the state penitentiary, though, where he runs the place in no time, unsurprisingly. But Steven himself is surprised to find the real love of his life there: Phillip Morris. Ewan McGregor plays this sweet, soft-spoken pretty boy with great delicacy and heart, and he knows enough to step aside to play the straight man, if you will, to the larger-than-life Carrey.
From there, Steven keeps finding ways to break out and make more money, only to get thrown back behind bars again. He talks his way into a courtroom where he pretends to be a lawyer and somehow acquires a job as a chief financial officer, but various suicide attempts land him repeatedly in the hospital, the location of the film's many voiceovers (which feel forced and don't work). He does it all for Phillip, hence the title, and Carrey and McGregor are awfully cute together. One of the great strengths of "I Love You Phillip Morris" is the matter-of-fact way it handles their relationship; it's never precious or mawkish, and frequently the humor between them is quite raunchy.
It's easy to see why Steven is drawn to Phillip, but it should be clear to Phillip eventually that he's dealing with a sociopath, someone who's manipulating and deceiving him just as much as the other men who've taken advantage of his innocence throughout his life. The real-life Steven is serving a 144-year prison sentence in Texas, where he's on lockdown for 23 hours a day. But for a while there, the mansions and matching convertible Mercedes did look like fun.
"I Love You Phillip Morris," a Roadside Attractions release, is rated R for sexual content including strong dialogue, and language. Running time: 98 minutes.