For many of us, it's been a long wait to see 'I Love You Phillip Morris,' which has had its release date pushed back numerous times because of distribution difficulties. It's so easy to feel let down by a film you've waited a long time to see. Happily, however, the film adapted and directed by the 'Bad Santa' writing team -- due in American theaters starting in December -- did not disappoint, with a wonderfully skewed sense of humor keeping a love story from becoming overly sentimental.
'I Love You Phillip Morris' is based on a nonfiction book by Houston journalist Steven McVicker, about real-life con man/prison escape maestro Steven Russell. Russell, played by Jim Carrey in the film, is an average Southern guy -- ex-policeman, working successfully in the produce business, happily married to a nice Christian woman (Leslie Mann) -- until an auto accident convinces him that he should stop concealing the secret part of his life and come out of the closet. Russell separates from his wife and begins to lead an ostentatiously gay and wealthy lifestyle, which his career choices can't afford ... so he turns to a life of crime, mostly fraud. While serving time in a Texas prison, he's swept off his feet by fellow prisoner Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), and suddenly his judgment becomes seriously impaired by True Love.
McVicker's book glides over the relationship and spends more time on the logistics of Russell's crimes. However, writer/directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra have decided to focus on the love story, which blossoms in a small prison cell -- not the usual setting for courtship and cooing. Although the movie does include sex scenes -- depicted above the waist but very easy to decipher -- 'I Love You Phillip Morris' is less of a heist/caper film and more of a romantic comedy, although the comedy is rather twisted at times. McVicker's long description of Russell's prison escapades is boiled down to a very effective and amusing montage.
One oddity of the movie is that the timeframe of the story is never clearly stated. I knew from the book that most of the action takes place in the early to mid-1990s, but prisons do have that timeless look about them. Suddenly you may find yourself wondering why Russell's cell phone is so huge, and why people are relying so much on paper copies and not computers. But the real drawback is that the lack of a specific timeframe makes it harder to understand why, for example, Russell doesn't tell his coworkers that he's gay. That was a lot more difficult to do even 15 years ago than it is now, even in Texas.
Jim Carrey is entirely believable as a Southern ex-cop turned flamboyant gay con artist turned prison escape expert who charms nearly everyone he meets. Normally I find prison rape humor distasteful, but Russell is so delightfully loopy that his guided tour of the facilities punctuated by the cheerful refrain of "Or you can suck his c***" had me laughing despite myself. Phillip Morris didn't have a lot of personality in the book, but the screenwriting combined with McGregor's performance gives us an almost ridiculously sweet character ... with the occasional edge. Leslie Mann's portrayal of Russell's wife Debbie makes me wish Russell spent more time with her so we could too.
The last third of the film delves into darker comedy/drama than you might find in a typical twinkly romantic comedy, although if you've read the book, you may be immune to the suspense element added to the film's climax. I can't be more specific without spoiling the film, but my reaction was noticeably different than the people around me, and I have to wonder if the suspense element was a good idea. It may have diluted the comedy a little too much. Still, 'I Love You Phillip Morris' manages successfully to overlay a sweet and occasionally tragic romance -- if an unconventional one -- with great galumphing comedy and a stellar performance from Carrey.