I Love You Phillip Morris

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/15/10 06:05:36

"Jim Carrey's best work in years, and wit besides."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

"I Love You Phillip Morris" opens with a playful variant on the standard disclaimer, something along the lines of "This all happened. It really did!" It's the sort of movie that might get dismissed as ridiculous or improbable otherwise, although it's arguably not really necessary - it works just fine as an crazy love story, albeit with the emphasis on the crazy.

Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) was living a pleasant life in a Georgia beach community - he was a respected member of the local police department with a sweet wife (Leslie Mann) and daughter - until a brush with death makes him decide to stop lying. Sorry, dear, I'm not actually working late those nights I'm out past midnight; I'm sleeping with men. The trouble with coming out is that the gay lifestyle he imagines is pretty expensive, and his con artistry gets him sent to prison. Still, he's soon got the place wired, and it lets him meet Phillip (Ewan McGregor), and love blooms in that improbably place. They stick together when they get out, but Steven almost can't help himself, leading to a series of scams, sentences, and escapes.

Every once in a while, an actor gets a role that is uniquely suited to him, not necessarily because of physical resemblance or passion for the topic, but <I>because</I> the audience never loses sight of who is playing the character. Despite having a rough few years, Jim Carrey is still a movie star, and the fact that we know his shtick actually makes him more effective in a part like this. Carrey does broad comedy, hamming it up when other actors might dial it back, and because of that, Steven's often-ridiculous behavior and success gets past our objections. Because the end results are zany and always seem about to career out of control, it's easy to forget that they don't - each eye-roll and elongated syllable is chosen for maximum humorous impact, and that sort of control goes into the more dramatic moments, too - Carrey can take a moment, pull back, and show a certain amount of love and hurt behind the zaniness and lying.

Carrey doesn't do this sort of thing single-handedly; writer/directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra make it easier for Carrey to do his thing by heightening the rest of the film's world at least a little, and by playing with the audience's expectations a bit. They frame the movie as Steve's first-person narrative, and while they could get by without the narration and flashback structure, it's an important part of the experience - we see that Steven lies to everybody, and how he does it, but this means that we have to ask just how much we can trust what we see and hear. We've got a chance to experience what he's doing to the people he loves.

It might be nice if those people were fleshed out a little better; though Ewan MacGregor is given nearly equal billing with Carrey, he's in a secondary role. He does very well with it, playing Phillip as dazzled and maybe not that bright compared to Steven, and maybe a bit willfully naive. It's a sweet portrayal, with just enough rough edges to make it the last act hurt a bit. Leslie Mann is very impressive in relatively short time - the scenes from Debbie's marriage to Steven are some of the movie's funniest scenes, and her later appearances are snappy and friendly, perhaps unexpectedly so, given the film's southern-U.S. setting and her vocal Christianity.

That's an worthwhile thing to note, if only because as much as this film is mostly being consigned to boutique houses and maybe the smallest room of the multiplex in America, it is at its heart pretty mainstream. The funniest scenes should be funny to anyone with a fondness for the absurd (that is, folks who like most Jim Carrey movies) - scenes like Debbie being much more engaged in prayer than Steven or Steven and Phillip having a romantic moment despite the chaos in the next cell aren't really that edgy. For the most part, this is far more a movie whose main characters are gay than a movie about being gay; you can certainly draw a line between being in the closet and Steven's compulsive persona-building, but other factors play a role as well.

The characters are engaging and appealing, and while the first-time directors don't quite hit all their targets, they've made a fun movie. It may not be as easy to find as most Jim Carrey comedies, but it's probably his best comic role since "Man on the Moon".

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