I Love You Phillip Morris premièred at the Sundance Film Festival nearly two years ago, and its long, uncertain journey to theaters—with release dates announced and withdrawn ad infinitum—reveals a timidity that stands in stark contrast to a comedy that’s crazily, recklessly fearless. Perhaps America isn’t ready for a lusty gay relationship between two big stars like Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor—or for yuks like one where the former scoffs at the latter for spitting rather than swallowing—but the movie seems cheerfully oblivious to any squeamishness on the audience’s part. Making their directorial debut, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the writing team responsible for the filthy alternative Christmas classic Bad Santa, apply the same go-for-broke nastiness to a story of love and crime that fully warrants it. This is Catch Me If You Can with two middle fingers raised in the air.
Based on the book by Houston Chronicle journalist Steve McVicker, I Love You Phillip Morris marvels at the impulsive, diabolical brilliance of Steven Jay Russell (Carrey), a.k.a. “King Con,” a multi-talented con artist who frustrated and embarrassed detectives and jailers for years. In a breathless series of scenes, it’s established that Steven, upon discovering he was adopted, became so motivated to impress his birth mother that he fashioned a straight-arrow life as a Georgia policeman, and a respected husband and father of two. When he finally meets his mother and is shown the door, Steven embraces who he really is—gay—and proceeds to build a new life in South Beach on embezzlement and fraud. While in prison, he meets Phillip Morris (McGregor), a sweet but taciturn love object, and his criminal exploits are pushed to another level.
Beyond the aggressive black comedy, most of it funny and the rest compensated for via pacing, I Love You Phillip Morris examines the fascinating contradictions of a man who spun an elaborate web of lies in order to sustain a love that was fundamentally true. Carrey’s performance dominates McGregor’s, and properly so, since Steven and Phillip’s relationship is forged (and sabotaged) almost entirely by the force of Steven’s imagination. The film’s only major flaw is that the two actors are never fully convincing as a couple; when it comes time to feel the breadth of Steven’s love for Phillip, the emotions don’t materialize. Ficarra and Requa are more comfortable being bad: The nastier the film gets, the better it is.