Movies: I Love You Phillip Morris * * * *
Jim Carrey is a divisive actor whose famous mannerisms tend to bring some viewers out in an allergic rash. However, even his most trenchant critics would be well advised to give this film a fair hearing, because it's a truly delightful romantic comedy.
I use that term advisedly, because although the story of two homosexual jailbirds who fall in love in prison might not sound like Mills and Boon material, I Love You Phillip Morris is a far more convincing love story than most heterosexual romcoms doing the rounds.
Directed by Glen Ficarra and John Requa, the film is based on the remarkable true story of Steven Jay Russell, a colourful conman who is currently languishing in a Texas prison. Carrey plays Russell, who starts out seeming like as upright a citizen as you could possibly hope to meet. In 70s Virginia, Russell is a smalltown deputy sheriff with a wife and two kids. His wife Debbie is a God-fearing conservative who says daily prayers to thank the Lord for their good fortune. But although Russell plays along, his regular-guy routine masks considerable inner turmoil.
He was adopted at birth, and when he tracks down his real mother she wants nothing to do with him. This, combined with a bad car crash, becomes a turning point in Russell's life, convincing him to drop his charade and be true to his nature. That means leaving Debbie and moving to Miami to live as an openly gay man. But he soon discovers, as he pithily puts it, that "being gay is really expensive!" so he begins supplementing his income with various ingenious scams.
These soon land him in jail, and when he meets a shy and retiring inmate called Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), Russell experiences what the French call a coup de foudre. It's love at first sight for the pair of them, but there's a problem -- they're housed in different wings of the prison. At first they correspond by smuggled notes, then Russell reveals his considerable ingenuity by bribing various guards and inmates to get himself transferred to Phillip's cell.
Despite the jeers of fellow prisoners, Russell and Phillip enjoy an idyllic sojourn in the same cell. But their love nest is disrupted when Russell is first transferred to another prison, and then released. But he is nothing if not determined, and will move heaven and earth to be together with his true love. And in the course of the film he will stage jailbreaks, become a corporate embezzler and impersonate lawyers and judges in order to find happiness for him and Morris.
The Jim Carrey of the 90s would have thrown the kitchen sink at a part like this, and blown any potential for serious drama by reducing his character to a face-pulling comic cypher. But he's a much better actor than he used to be, and, for me, this might be his most accomplished and winning performance yet. He times his comedy and executes his pratfalls perfectly, but there's much more to his portrayal of Russell than that.
In a way we should disapprove of Russell, who is a swindler, conman and inveterate liar. But he's also a charming and almost childlike individual. And there's something genuinely touching about his unshakable love for Phillip. Ewan McGregor is very good as Morris, and Leslie Mann is winning too as Russell's remarkably understanding wife.
But it's on Carrey's performance that the film stands or falls, and he does a tremendous job of balancing his character's comedy and humanity. In fact, it's a pity the film was delayed in post-production by US distributors' concerns over its overtly homosexual story, because had it emerged in time for the Oscars Carrey might have been nominated.