The phrase "truth is stranger than fiction" applies to few stories more perfectly than that of Steven Jay Russell, a gay con man who has escaped from prison multiple times by simply walking out the door -- through different means of disguise. Nearly every time that he was caught on the run, it was because of his love for another inmate, Phillip Morris, from whom he just couldn't stay away. This amazing and oftentimes downright bizarre tale of duplicity and Big House romance is brought to the big screen with Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's hilarious black comedy 'I Love You Phillip Morris,' in which Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor star, respectively, as the great escapee and his object of affection.
Based on the book by Steve McVickar, a journalist who'd previously covered the ongoing story for the Houston Press, 'I Love You Phillip Morris' is actually surprisingly faithful to the truth, for the most part (and as far as we can believe that what Russell told to McVickar is indeed the whole truth). Producer Andrew Lazar admits that "obviously we've taken dramatic license" and Requa acknowledges that "we had to mix-n-match and move stuff around," yet as the opening title claims, pretty much everything in the film really happened. It really did.
They just might have happened a little differently, chronologically or with greater detail. So, not to nitpick, but we take a look at some of the significant parts of the adaptation and clarify any contrasts with how things really really occurred.
REAL PEOPLE VS. ACTORS WHO PLAY THEM
FICTION: It's one thing to cast talented actors willing to enact a homosexual romance on screen, but do Carrey and McGregor also resemble the infamous men they're portraying? What about the rest of the players, including comic actress Leslie Mann as Russell's devoted ex-wife, Debbie, and Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro as his Palm Beach boyfriend, Jimmy?
FACT: Try to find a photo of Russell and you're likely to find a recent shot of him: bald, plump and quite pale from all the solitary confinement he receives to keep him from disappearing once again (Renqua is a better match, actually). As he looked in the '80s and '90s, though, Carrey is close enough, perhaps a little too thin (except during his physical deterioration "from AIDS"). As for McGregor, he's not scrawny enough for Morris -- and he should be wearing glasses. Neither Debbie nor the late James Kemple are on public view for comparisons.
RUSSELL'S LIFE-CHANGING CAR CRASH
FICTION: In the film, Russell gets into a horrible car wreck with his new Corvette and, as a result, promptly decides to come out of the closet. This decision to stop leading a double life and be honest with his wife leads to their impossibly civil divorce. Free to lead the open gay lifestyle in Florida, he gradually turns to insurance fraud and other crimes to support the expenses that, according to him, come with being a homosexual.
FACT: Russell really did come out to Debbie following a Corvette accident, though it was much different than the one onscreen. Instead of a sudden collision with another vehicle, he was attempting to elude the police when caught speeding from a secret tryst with a man to his wife and daughter at home. He lost control at a railroad crossing and flipped the car many times. Debbie and Steven did indeed separate as friends and have always maintained a good relationship. As for it leading to crime, this is slightly off given that Russell had been in trouble with the law before, most notably for solicitation, and may have done some petty theft for which he wasn't caught. Homosexuality did contribute, but more because he was fired for being gay and thus needed to make due by other means. Additionally, it's possible the death of Russell's adopted father and/or a general case of depression and midlife crisis may have contributed to his life change as much as did the wreck.
THE GREAT PRISON ESCAPES
FICTION: Some of Russell's most clever prison escapes are depicted in the film. These include: using green marker ink to dye a prison uniform green and the theft of an ID badge to walk out the door disguised as a doctor; wearing women's hot pants and flashing a stolen walkie-talkie to pass as a free-to-go maintenance worker; forging documents and impersonating a judge in phone calls to get his bail set lower; and, most audaciously, pretending to have AIDS and faking his own death while in private care.
FACT: All of these truly occurred, but the maintenance worker escape happened much earlier chronologically and involved a less suspicious wardrobe (women's sweats rather than hot pants). The doctor disguise entailed a self-made ID badge, rather than a stolen one, and had no photo on it. (Guards were used to being flashed the back sides of IDs and didn't notice.) The AIDS scam (not exactly his first, by the way) was somewhat more elaborate than it seems and he lost weight with laxatives, not mere dieting and vomiting. Some of the captures that appear to have happened quickly and nearby also happened later, as far away as Pennsylvania, and he was oftentimes hiding out with, depending on the time frame, either Kemple or Morris.
STEVEN AND JIMMY'S RELATIONSHIP
FICTION: Russell met and had his first major gay relationship with James Kemple in Florida. Following his arrest and continual suicide attempts, Russell seems to have lost contact with his Latin lover while in prison. At some point, though, Russell was by Kemple's side, as the latter died as a result of AIDS.
FACT: All is true, yet quite limited. Kemple was a major figure in Russell's life for a few more years following Russell's first prison sentence. After that early worker-impersonation escape, Russell fled north for two years with his boyfriend, spending time in Chicago as a NutraSweet executive, and then in Philadelphia, near where Kemple hailed from. This is where the two were arrested for insurance fraud, but both were let off because they were dying of AIDS. This was only a lie in Russell's case. Kemple succumbed to the disease while Russell was ultimately expedited back to Texas to return to prison. And meet Morris ...
STEVEN AND PHILLIP'S RELATIONSHIP
FICTION: Russell and Morris meet in the prison's law library, talk about the significance of Friday the 13th (it's good luck for Russell, bad for Morris, who was born on the day), become cellmates, enjoy surf and turf dinners in the mess hall and later reunite on the outside, where they buy a mansion, luxury cars and live the good life as happy lovers. When Morris finds out Russell is wanted for embezzlement, he flees and the two are pretty much estranged for half of the film. Morris is seen as wanting nothing to do with his lying lover, especially when he's wrongfully charged as an accomplice.
FACT: The two did meet precisely as we see, but there's more to Friday the 13th part, which was already significant to Russell as a day of freedom (from a boys' home as a youth; his worker-impersonation jailbreak) and continued to be his chosen date of escape later, in part because of Morris' birthday. It's unlikely they dined so well in prison, that meal serving the exaggerated, farcical tone of the film, and though Morris seems completely innocent of any criminal activity in real life it might not have been so. He was arrested for the embezzlement along with Russell and later was apparently okay spending his days with the escaped convict -- until each time of re-capture. Since Morris' release from prison he has vowed never to return, not even to visit Russell, though he would like to see him again if only for an apology.
THE FINAL CAPTURE
FICTION: Following his final escape -- the AIDS scam -- Russell surprises a mourning Morris by visiting him at prison as "his lawyer." The two fall back in love and Russell proceeds to represent Morris in an appeal for his release. Unfortunately, Russell coincidentally runs into an employee of the company he embezzled and is presumably thereby immediately turned in. He is then prosecuted by a D.A., who is coincidentally the sister-in-law of the CEO of that same company, and sentenced to 144 years in maximum confinement.
FACT: Russell did visit Morris after faking his own death and pretended to be his lawyer, but this was as much because lawyers get more visitation time than normal people as it was to exonerate an innocent Morris. (Russell had already tried to relieve Morris of culpability when they were arrested together.) However, he stopped the visits once they heard authorities were potentially onto him. A year went by, with task forces tracking him all over Texas, before he was finally apprehended in Florida. It was likely traced phone calls from the incarcerated Morris that did it. Russell thinks they just got lucky. It's hard to tell locate any truth to the D.A.-CEO relationship, but it's worth noting the name of the boss in the film is not the real name of the company's CEO. While Russell is under extreme watch and confined to maximum security, authorities pay even closer attention every Friday the 13th.