“I’m going to be a fag!” Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) yells at the paramedics tending to him after a car crash near the start of I Love You Phillip Morris, the likable but uneven comedy by writer-directors Glenn Ficara and John Requa (Bad Santa). Before that moment, Steven was leading a perfectly normal life, happily married to Debbie (Leslie Mann), a well-liked police officer and a devout churchgoer with lots of friends.
But then two things happen: First Steven tracks down his birth mother and discovers he was the middle child of her three kids – but the only one put up for adoption. Then comes the crash, which almost kills him, but also brings him an epiphany: Instead of continuing to lead a covert double life, he’s going to shed his heterosexual disguise and go the full gay.
So he moves to South Beach, gets himself a splashy pad and finds a handsome Latino boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro). Soon, though, comes a realization: “Being gay is really expensive.” And so begins Steven’s amazing career of crime, which includes every sort of fraud imaginable, until the cops finally catch up with him and send him to prison.
I Love You Phillip Morris, which would be wholly unbelievable if it wasn’t a true story, gets a kickstart when Steven meets fellow inmate Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a kind and gentle spirit serving a short sentence for failing to return a rental car. The two fall in love almost immediately, and when Phillip is shipped to another prison, Steven begins an elaborate machination for them to reunite.
Even after they’re both free men, though, the con games and shady business deals continue: Once Steven has gotten a taste of the good life, he’s unwilling to let it go, and the mostly oblivious Phillip happily complies, not fully aware of his partner’s criminal antics. A big part of the fun in I Love You Phillip Morris is watching these two giant movie stars plunge headlong into roles that would normally be played by lesser-known actors in a low-budget independent film. Carrey portrays Steven’s outsized personality and frantic energy honestly, without a trace of clownishness, and McGregor’s turn as the sweet and trusting Phillip makes you understand how the man could have been duped so easily. The film doesn’t shy away from the physicality of their relationship, either: Carrey and McGregor see their roles all the way through.
The problem with I Love You Phillip Morris is that Steven’s crimes eventually take over the movie: His elaborate cons may be fascinating, daring stuff, but the heart of the picture is the romantic relationship, which is squeezed out to the edges. McGregor doesn’t get enough screen time to fully flesh out Phillip – there has to be more to the man than just his innocence – and the humor gradually seeps out of the film as Steven’s legal woes become graver and his stunts more outrageous. By film’s end, I Love You Phillip Morris feels more like the seriocomic study of a huckster’s astonishing career than a romance interrupted by a man who wanted all or nothing – and thought himself invincible.
Cast: Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro.
Writers-directors: John Requa, Glenn Ficarra.
Producers: Andrew Lazar, Far Shariat.
A Roadside Attractions release. Running time: 110 minutes. Vulgar language, explicit sex, brief nudity, adult themes. Opens Saturday in Miami-Dade: South Beach, Sunset Place; in Broward: Gateway; in Palm Beach: Delray Beach, Shadowood.