I Love You Phillip Morris is a movie that earns laughs by being transgressive -- right down to its title, which evokes the tobacco company (which has long since tried to disguise its identity by changing its name to Altria).
Written and directed by the Bad Santa team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, Phillip Morris (which opens in limited release on Friday, 12/3/10) is a politically-incorrect movie that happens to be a gay romantic comedy. It's also a wild story of an outlandishly nervy con man whose scams ultimately are all perpetrated in the name of love.
His name is Steven Russell and he's played with bold but not broad choices by Jim Carrey. First glimpsed as a Virginia cop with a house and family, Steven's life changes when he abuses his authority in order to track down his birth mother (he was told, unkindly, that he was adopted, when he was much younger). When he finally finds her -- and she blows him off without acknowledging him -- he decides it's time to stop living a lie.
So he comes out of the closet, gets a divorce and quits his job, moving to South Beach to immerse himself in what conservatives refer to as "the gay agenda." In his case, it's an ongoing orgy of hot sex, lavish parties and relentless shopping. But, as he observes, "being gay is really expensive."
To finance his new lifestyle, he becomes a scam artist -- specifically, a master of insurance and credit-card fraud. He is particularly good at slip-and-fall claims, liberally squirting cooking oil in a supermarket aisle before taking an elaborate pratfall that will earn him thousands in settlement money.
All good things must come to an end, however, and Steven eventually gets caught. For a well-organized gay man, however, prison is a breeze. And it gets better when he first lays eyes on Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a sensitive little blond inmate who becomes the love of Steven's life.
From there, it's all about being reassigned as bunkmates, then getting out of prison together. None of these things is accomplished in anything resembling a legal manner, but Steven is brassy enough -- he's a con man, after all -- to pull them off by pretending to be a lawyer (he's booked lots of hours in the prison law library).
The struggle then becomes finding a way to support Phillip and himself in the manner to which Steven wants Phillip to become accustomed. When Steven talks his way into a CFO position at a major corporation, he can't resist running elaborate schemes on his new employer, because there's all that money just sitting there, waiting to be embezzled.
For a change, Carrey -- at one point the hottest comic performer in movies and still one of the most inventive -- has a role that allows to him to play big without going over the top. His version of Steven (the film is based on a true story) has a big imagination and a wide range of talents, but is still someone who is recognizably a human being, as opposed to some manic rubber man in captivity.
He makes Steven, finally, a heartsick, love-struck individual whose passion reaches obsessive levels. Carrey's spontaneity is always in service to the material, never at war with it. He's wholly credible as a guy who just wants to spend the rest of his life with the man he loves.
McGregor is, ostensibly, the normal one here, a slightly criminal guy who just wants to live a normal life -- and who, despite his love for Steven, doesn't want to have his heart broken and definitely doesn't want to get tossed back into prison. McGregor brings a sweetness and pliancy to the role that can't mask Phillip's determination to stay out of jail.
The script does flag, jokewise, the longer it goes on. But Requa and Ficarra are playing the long game, building to the bigger reveal of an audacious scheme that pays off in the end. The film goes from being outrageous to clever and smart, with moments of outrageousness sprinkled through the later going.
Ultimately, it is a movie that earns its stripes as being wildly inappropriate and quite funny. If it begins to run low on energy toward the end, it's still a wonderfully imaginative film (despite supposedly being based on a true story), a sleeper for the end of a year that's been short on laugh-out-loud comedies.