There are many movies that claim to be based on true events, however “I Love You Phillip Morris,” seems so desperate to convince its audience the events the film is based on really happened that filmmakers Glen Ficarra and John Requa open the movie with the words “this really happened, it really did.” In all fairness, on paper the events told are so outlandish you would think a screenwriter invented them as a writing exercise. But no, the film is based on a book that tells the life of criminal Steven Jay Russell, who was once a police officer married with children and eventually but wound up in prison for a number of crimes and escaping from prison multiple times. He was also enthusiastically gay, and hopelessly in love with a man called Phillip Morris.
Steven Russell (Jim Carrey, sporting a slight southern accent) starts off as a good man, and stays more or less a good man for the rest of his life despite going through some major changes. Having become a cop in Georgia for the sole purpose of tracking down his biological mother who gave him up for adoption, he decides to move to Texas with his very Christian wife Debbie (Leslie Mann) and his daughter. There he suffers a serious car accident, and like most people who suffer near-death experiences he decides to start embracing life and live his life honestly. To Debbie’s utter surprise, that means coming out of the closet and moving to Florida.
In Florida Steven embraces his new lifestyle to the fullest. He moves in with his boyfriend Jimmy (Rodrigo Santoro) and his two dogs, and spends a lot of money on clothes, jewels, and spa treatments. He spends so much money in fact he becomes a con man in order to sustain his lifestyle, doing everything from faking accidents at the grocery store to credit card fraud. In what must be one of the most unwise moves for a criminal, he actually sends piles of money to Debbie and his daughter all wrapped up for Christmas. At least he still cares about his ex-wife, but of course it is not long before he is caught and sent to prison for the first of many times.
Steven adjusts well to prison life, especially since the shortcut to getting anything there seems to be performing sexual favors. One day he meets fellow inmate Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), imprisoned for a small crime. Steven falls in love at first sight and gets to know his new lover by smuggling notes to his cell. Through prison connections he is moved to Phillip’s cell and at night they pay a fellow prisoner to play music so they can dance. When Steven is released he poses as a lawyer and gets Phillip out as well so they can move in together. Thanks to fake credentials he obtains a legitimate job as a C.F.O at a major medical management company and is surprisingly actually good at it. This could be a happy ending for the both of them, but for Steven old habits die-hard. Soon he is back at the con game, only now he is stealing millions for his company.
Steven’s problem seems to be that he is a pathological liar. For years he lied about his sexuality both to himself and his wife and then he lied to his boyfriend about his money. Played with Carrey’s usual manic energy, he comes off as a con man addicted to the rush of gaming the system and reaping the rewards.
Both Carrey and McGregor play their roles convincingly, despite both being heterosexual in real life. Carrey might come off as a bit stereotypical, spending money on flashy clothes and walking around in a tight Speedo, but maybe that was just Steven’s way of being honest with himself. McGregor’s Phillips on the other hand is more of a shy person who is very hurt when he realizes the man he loves has been lying to him.
Steven’s deceptions and resourcefulness when constantly escaping from the authorities form the story’s comedy, but it is sad that a person so creative ended up throwing his life away. If he had somehow channeled all that creativity into getting a real job he could have been happy with Phillip. Instead he chose to deceive him and doom their relationship. Ironic for a man who wanted to live his life honestly.
(“I Love You Phillip Morris” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray and is streaming on Netflix.)