Christine Champ February 7, 2011
Charismatic and entertaining.
A con man who blames his crimes on being a “fool for love.” A chameleon who never went to college yet convincingly impersonates lawyers, doctors, CFOs, and more to keep the gay love of his life (and himself) in matching Mercedes and jet skis. An ingenious jail breaker who trots out the penitentiary’s front gates in glossy scarlet short shorts. I Love You Phillip Morris is the stuff of implausible movie plots — yet it’s all true.
Steven Russell, aka “King Con,” the slippery genius who inspired the film, is currently serving a 144-year life sentence for a legendary criminal resume that includes felony escape and embezzlement. He’s so closely guarded he spends 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. After watching Jim Carrey flee from justice in his shoes in director/writers’ Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s upbeat biopic, Russell marveled to Brit paper The Observer, “They’ve got it down. The way we speak, the mannerisms, the clothes — everything. It’s surreal.”
Seeing Russell and his shenanigans on-screen, it’s easy to be charmed by Russell and the film. It all begins with the end, a sickly Russell in a hospital bed looking back on his life. In a glowy childhood memory, surrounded by his nerdily-spectacled family, we witness the moment his brother callously spits out the truth: Russell was adopted. Despite how much this truth about the mother he’s told sold him in a hospital parking lot hurts, he vows to be a good person. He plays piano in the church choir, becomes a cop, marries the Jesus-obsessed Debbie (Leslie Mann) who thanks the son of God for helping her find the last coffee filter, and lovingly tucks his daughter into bed. He and Debbie’s sweaty sex life has all the romance of porn yet they appear content. Then Russell locates his biological mother only to discover — before she slams the door in his face — that he was the middle child she inexplicably gave up while raising his siblings. As Carrey narrates, he quits the force, moves to Texas, and has a car-crash “epiphany.” Lying bloodied and neck-braced on a stretcher, he decides he’s done with lies, because yes, he’s definitely homosexual.
Living high on the gay hog is expensive, so he turns to insurance fraud (the kind where you bolt in front of cars to get hit), passport fraud, tomato fraud, and an assortment of other cons. All of which steer his life’s trajectory toward prison and Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a soft-spoken, blue-eyed southerner incarcerated for rental car theft. Rental car theft? Yes, that detail, like many of the other unbelievable details of the movie (Russell impersonating a judge while in jail to reduce his bail), reflect Russell’s real life.
As for the twangy longing of the romantic score; the warm, cheerful lighting that makes even the peeling yellow walls of Morris’ cell sunny; or the smitten bliss of incarcerated sweethearts waltzing to “Chances Are” in their cell … these details are another filmmaker matter, perhaps an extension of Morris’ exhilarating ebullience. When Ficarra and Requa do allude to the darker realities of prison it’s with flip jokes about the perils of the yard for pretty boys. They also appear to peel away bits of Russell’s cavalier facade to expose his desperation to be loved and not left, his childish panic when his cover is blown, plus his self-proclaimed ultimate undoing: his passion for Phillip Morris. After he falls for him, everything he does, his cons (the earlier ones don’t count?) and breakouts, revolve around Morris. Carrey brilliantly captures it all — Russell’s disarming wit and sincerity — with little of his usual rubber-face shtick. And he and McGregor make adorable lovebirds.
So does this film reveal the real Phillip Morris? Is there a genuine Morris hiding beneath his many masks? As Morris asks a contrite Russell, who declares his love after one of his schemes wrecks their happy home and lands him back in hot water: “How do I know you’re not bullshitting?” Russell’s answer: “You don’t.” I Love You Phillip Morris, like Russell, could be one big con, but it’s all so charismatic and entertaining, you won’t mind.
Categories: ReviewsTags: Christine champ, Ewan mcgregor, I love you, Movie review, Phillip morris