Relying on the fact that the events about to be shown seem too outlandish to be believed, I Love You Phillip Morris begins by telling the audience, ‘This really happened. It really did’. And yet, the story that unravels is essentially a variation on the quest for identity and purpose narrative. Jim Carrey has now played several leading characters who are searching for meaning and authenticity in films such as The Truman Show, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Majestic. As Steven Russell in I Love You Phillip Morris he is a man who has spent his entire life conforming to an ideal of who he should be and as a result his life has become such a lie that he can only function as a high stakes con artist. Due to serious childhood abandonment issues he first pretends to play the part of a good conservative, middle-suburbia, Christian family man while hiding his attraction to other men. However, when he does openly live as a gay man he adopts a stereotypically homosexual persona and as a result develops a comically expensive lifestyle. It is not until his first stretch in prison for his frauds that he finally finds something that gives his life meaning – his love for fellow inmate Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor).
Leaving aside the extent in which the premise of I Love You Phillip Morris is essentially very sad and serious, this is overall an extremely funny and at times very sweet romantic comedy. Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, whose most notable previous credit was as the writers on Bad Santa, I Love You Phillip Morris possesses an extremely wicked sense of humour. Ficarra and Requa have that rare quality of being able to successfully generate laughs from potentially offensive subject matter without pandering to lowest common denominator bigotry. They can do jokes about homophobia, gay stereotypes, violence in prison and AIDS because despite the extreme personalities and absurd situations, the characters are treated with respect.
It also helps that both Carrey and McGregor deliver such excellent performances as people who are both so incredibly in love with each other. The dynamic with Carrey as extroverted and almost manic with McGregor as naive and very sweet works very effectively. It’s clear what both the characters see in each other and Carrey and McGregor have real chemistry. In between the laughs are several very tender and touching moments. I Love You Phillip Morris does pull the rug out from underneath the audience in several moments when the mood of the film changes. The film manages to walk a line between hilarity and tragedy throughout, with unexpected moments of sadness that are not undermined by the comedy surrounding them. Ficarra and Requa play with expectations right up until the very end and their final surprise is audacious, hilarious, oddly touching and brilliantly delivered.
Distribution and exhibition woes may have prevented I Love You Phillip Morris from having the full cultural impact that it could have had, which is a shame because it is such an impressive film. Steven’s quest for his true identity through his love for Phillip is the main theme running throughout the film but closer to the surface it is a fast paced con artist film (not too dissimilar to Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can) combined with a warm love story and lots of wonderful black humour.