Movie Review: I Love You, Phillip Morris
The first thing I did after watching I Love You, Phillip Morris was race to my computer to research the life of Steven Jay Russel, the real life con man/jail bird on whom this film was based. His story is incredible, something that, if you weren’t told was true, you would write off as pure fantasy. His exploits read like a one man Ocean’s Eleven and it’s no wonder Hollywood snapped up the rights to Steve McVickers book of the same name. Russel, or King Con as he is also known, created fourteen known aliases, managed to embezzle $800,000 from the company where he worked and escaped from Texas’ Harris County Jail four times.
How do you cast a character like that? You call Jim Carrey.
Jim Carrey isn’t given nearly enough credit. When he takes on more serious roles nobody pays attention, if he plays it broad suddenly he’s pandering to the mainstream again. In Steven Russel Carrey has found the perfect role to display his strengths. He plays Russell broadly but never loses sight of the man. Its a tough balancing act and if misjudged could have been a disaster, had he gone over board the more emotional elements wouldn’t have worked. Carrey walks the line expertly and come the quieter moments delivers his best work in years. It’s difficult to sell a criminal, especially one who is (initially at least) motivated by greed but Carrey’s natural charm shines through.
Ewan McGregor plays the the titular Phillip Morris and isn’t granted as full a character. As Russell’s lover, Morris is just as much a spectator as the audience. It’d be easy to get blown off the screen by Jim Carrey but Ewan is far more reliable than that. He brings a sweet vulnerability to Morris, playing the character with coy shyness and softness but still manages to pack a punch during an emotional scene towards the climax. Just like Russel you believe in Morris.
Most impotantly though, you believe in the relationship, which is vital. Without it this would be little more than a screwball comedy, but the connection at the heart of the film elevates it beyond that. That sounds redundant i know, of course a romantic comedy needs to have a believeable relationship at it’s centre, but there is something more at work here. The film is smart and witty and sweet, a delightful romp sure but one that is determined to dig deeper and that comes from the script by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra and solidified by the chemistry between the leads. I’m aware the word sweet keeps cropping up but it perfectly describes the feeling while watching I Love You Philip Morris, I’m not ready to call it the gay Annie Hall but it has a similar charm.
What irritates me is the way this film is being sold. “The Con Man Who Won’t Go Straight!” Screams the tagline. Hilarious. Apparently the film had a hard time finding a distributor and while Consolidated Pictures eventually picked it up the marketing clearly shows some trepidation. The promotional material wants to attract the crowd that made the turgid I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry a hit, but in all likelyhood it may turn away a more intelligent audience, which would be a great shame.
But that’s the marketing, the film itself is a delight. It’s actually a very old fashioned comedy, albeit an at times shocking one. It’s funny, touching, and (there’s that word again) very sweet.