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I Love You Phillip Morris

Jim Carey and Ewan McGregor star in unbelievable feeling true-life story

Photo: , License: N/A, Created: 2008:04:28 13:11:49

Jim Carrey (right) and Rodrigo Santoro walk it like they talk it.

I Love You Phillip Morris

Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa

Opens Dec. 17.

I Love You Phillip Morris is based on Steve McVickers nonfiction book by the same name about Steven Russell (Jim Carrey), a talented con man with a penchant for escaping from prison and assuming other people’s identities. His only weakness as a hustler is his love for Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a romantic partner he meets in a prison library. Because he keeps going back to Morris, Russell keeps ending up back in the clink. It’s an amazing story, and if the directors—Glenn Ficarra and John Requa of Bad Santa and Cats and Dogs, um, fame—had chosen to play it straight, it would have been riveting. Instead they resort to caricature and succeed in making an unbelievable true story feel like an exaggerated fiction.

Russell, in real life and in the movie, begins his adult life as a married father and police officer who plays the church organ. Then, after nine years of marriage, he tells his wife he is gay and leaves her. He starts his new life by faking a slip-and-fall accident and claiming the insurance money. He’s thrown in jail but manages to escape by procuring a pair of women’s sweatpants, a T-shirt, and a walkie-talkie. In that getup, he simply walks out. (In the movie, the outfit has morphed into fishnet stockings and red leather hot pants. Gratuitous exaggeration, exhibit A.) From there, the cons come thick and fast. For one escape, Russell collects green Magic Markers and uses them to dye his prison whites green, the hue of the visiting doctors’ uniforms. In another, he impersonates a judge and lowers his own bail. Yet another sees him in a police car injecting himself repeatedly with insulin, which causes him to go into shock and require hospitalization (thus providing him a greater chance of escape).

Along the way, Russell meets Morris, a waifish 20-year-old imprisoned for not returning a rental car on time. It’s love at first sight, and in the movie, a good deal of, ahem, hard-to-swallow prison romance ensues. The couple slow-dances in their cell, to music from the tape deck of a neighboring convict; they snuggle together and watch an old movie in a room full of other prisoners and no one lifts an eyebrow; they are served surf-and-turf in the prison cafeteria—courtesy, somehow, of Russell’s conning powers—while everyone else gets slop. These obvious embellishments undermine the story, which needs none.

That said, the movie has its points. One refreshing aspect is that the plot—aside from a couple of juvenile penis jokes—is not about being gay, despite the fact that the central characters are gay lovers. Russell’s relationship with Morris is treated much as it would be if the romance was heterosexual. And slow dancing aside, Carrey and McGregor are a convincing pair of lovers. In one scene, a shy, dependent Morris lays his head on Russell’s chest and plays absently with his chest hair while they talk. It’s touching and natural, without coming off as exploitative.

The cons, too, are fun to watch (especially if you remind yourself they really happened). In one stint away from prison, Russell fakes his résumé and manages to land a job as chief financial officer of a large medical management company. The ensuing scenes making fun of boardroom culture, while overblown, are funny. (The kind of lame joke that elicits roars of laughter and slaps on the back at Russell’s new workplace: “Q3 is what Q3 always is. It’s Q2 with training wheels.”) And the fact that Russell manages to convince everyone he is a CFO—though he had no experience—while simultaneously skimming money off the top makes you shake your head in wonder at his brilliance.

At the very beginning of I Love You Phillip Morris, the following lines appear on the screen: “This really happened. It really did.” It’s an odd epigraph for the movie that follows: Look, this really happened. We’re going to exaggerate it so it seems like it didn’t. But it did. Really. In the end, the movie just makes you want to know Russell’s actual true story, free of bells and whistles and deathbed confessions. Fortunately that story is out there, in the form of the book as well as several articles, including a fascinating Esquire piece from February of this year. Russell is a complicated, extremely intelligent man with a mysterious drive to buck the system. He deserves a more subtle portrayal.

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