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A car accident, a coming-out, and a lifetime of cons, jail-breaking, and death-faking. By the end of I Love You Phillip Morris, you totally forget about its opening claim: “This really happened,” the text reads. And soon after: “It really did.” But unless you’re someone who bitches that certain things could happen only in a movie, the story’s verity hardly impacts what turns out to be possibly the most joyful film about a convict yet.
Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) was a church-going family man in Texas, a cop who was married to a lovely, devout woman (Leslie Mann) and whose biggest issue seemed to be not only that he was adopted, but that his biological mother had sons older and younger than he—so, you know, it was just him she had a problem with. He uses police records to find her, and she wants nothing to do with him, which makes him sad. But not as sad as the fact that he was, as his voiceover tells us, “gay gay gay gay gay.” A serious car accident serves as his “epiphany,” and Steven quickly leaves his wife and moves to Florida with a lover.
Under hypersaturated Sunshine State skies, though, Steven finds that “being gay is really expensive.” So he begins another life of fraud, this time staging accidents and bilking insurance companies out of wads of cash so he can “live high on the gay hog.” He’s eventually caught and sent to prison, where he meets Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a soft-spoken, honey-haired wisp of a man whose charge stems from an overdue rental car. The attraction is immediate, and soon Steven conspires to make them cellmates—and, eventually, wins them both parole, posing as a lawyer. Once free, they live life on the right side of the law for a while. But then there’s that gay hog again.
Though I Love You Phillip Morris is at its heart a love story, it’s difficult to keep the whys of Steven’s shenanigans in mind when the hows are so jaw-dropping. Carrey is exuberant and, of course, funny in his most layered role to date, half slick con artist and half hopeless romantic, his rubber-faced goofiness winnowed to always-smiling eagerness. Steven’s schemes seem simultaneously easy and impossible, and Carrey’s charisma ensures that you’re always pulling for the character to pull one over on others, again and again and again. Meanwhile, McGregor’s Phillip mostly sits back and marvels with twinkling eyes. A breezy, tropical soundtrack further lubricates it all.
Ficarra and Requa, who previously teamed up on Bad Santa, not only use words like “fag” with abandon, they also don’t censor Steven and Phillip’s love. Carrey and McGregor kiss, pet, and carry on like any leading couple in a romantic comedy would, their fame never taking you out of the moment or making the characters’ affection seem unnatural. The real Steven Russell, if he weren’t presently serving a 144-year sentence, would be proud.