Early in this movie, Steve Russell (Jim Carrey) who is adopted, eagerly seeks out his birth mother. He is rudely rebuffed by her, crushing his feelings. For the rest of the movie, in one way or another, usually with con jobs and dramatic escape attempts, Steve keeps attempting to find out who he really is.
I Love You Phillip Morris is based on a true story written by Steve Vickers, who became notorious for the number of times he escaped from prison. The main story line of the film is the love story between Steve and his prison inamorata. The tale is outrageous, sometimes funny, occasionally poignant, but mostly boring, because the main characters are shallow, materialistic, self-absorbed, deluded, and childish. Otherwise, they’re fine human beings, who just happen to be gay.
Steve is a happy man, married to Debbie (the marvelous Leslie Mann) who loves his enthusiastic sex, and they have two children who don’t seem to exist much. One day he has an epiphany and decides to really be himself and go gay full-time. Not just gay, he wants to be “gay gay gay gay gay! ” So from small-town married cop in Georgia he becomes a flamboyant gay stereotype in Florida, with gold chains, tight shorts, status pooches and a gorgeous Latin boyfriend.
It’s funny for a few seconds. But soon reality sets it. As Steve finds out, “No one ever talks about this, but being gay is really expensive.” Intelligent, but not educated, Steve finds high-paying jobs out of his league. He turns to fraud to support the extravagant lifestyle he imagines he must have to be his true self. But he’s not experienced enough to avoid getting caught.
Now in a Texas prison, he buries himself in the law library to find legal details he can use for himself and to impress other inmates. One day in walks Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a sweet, gullible, blue-eyed, blonde Southern belle. It’s love at first sight for Steven. He woos the gentle Philip with humor, lies, flattery, clandestine sex, and macho exploits such as arranging the bloody attack of a fellow prisoner whose late-night yabbering has annoyed them. Prison is a drag, but the two of them are happy to cuddle for hours in their cell.
By this time, I was mildly amused with Steve’s rambunctious, lying ways and his near-manic Jim Carrey behavior. But I never once thought he was gay. On the other hand, Ewan McGregor’s angelic Phillip Morris was believable in everything he said or did. It was one of the best performances of the year.
But even Ewan McGregor’s brilliance isn’t enough to save this movie. He’s only the supporting actor. The story belongs to Jim Carrey, the catalyst for all the lies and addictive buying. He cons people into thinking he’s a lawyer, an FBI agent and the CFO of a health care management co. (Lots of jokes there on the under qualified, overpaid nincompoops in that industry’s management.) In the course of the movie, Steve doesn’t learn anything about himself, or grow in wisdom, or help homeless people or volunteer for gay rights–he just keeps doing the same nasty stuff and getting caught .
Back and forth to prison, Steve goes. And sometimes Phillip is in there, too. About this time, realizing that his goose may be cooked for con games on the outside, Steve plays con games inside–elaborate, hilarious hoaxes, such as pretending, for a long time, to die from AIDS and getting sent to a hospice for his last days so he can escape.
Throughout it all, Steve proclaims his undying love for Phillip Morris, which might be true in his adolescent brain, but if you love someone you don’t get them involved in schemes that will put them back in jail. Steve’s kind of love is something that any guy in his right mind would avoid, and eventually, so the true story goes, Phillip Morris does just that.
I Love You Phillip Morris was a risky production endeavor–a gay prison romance about boys who like pricey toys. Filmmakers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Bad Santa) deserve critical admiration for being bold enough to tell a story about gay men without feeling the need to have any social redeeming social agenda. But in the end boldness and a great performance does not make a good movie. Audiences still want to be entertained and to lose themselves in stories about people they care about.