Hollywood loves a good confidence man film. The sly, charming, manipulative ways these con-men carry out their tasks with wit and backhanded tricks gives these films an alluring style. More than that, Hollywood often enjoys making movies that analyze and dissect the characters who make these cons possible. I Love You Phillip Morris follows in those footsteps... as best as it can.
As a comedy-drama I Love You Phillip Morris serves more towards the comedy side when telling the real life story of Steven Jay Russell (Jim Carrey), a noted prison escape artist and conman. Much of the first act is spent setting up Russell's back story, such as his childhood, wife Debbie (Leslie Mann), and coming out with his first boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro). All of which inevitably lead to his first jailing. Here we are finally introduced to the mysterious Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). The pretty, kind, but often used, fellow prisoner who becomes the object of Steven's infatuation. From there on I Love You Phillip Morris becomes a tale of cons, prison breaks, and deceit as Russell does everything in his power to keep the two of them together... or so he hopes.
Told through the use of flashbacks and narration, much of the story of Steven Russell centers on his desire to lavish his boyfriends with a chic lifestyle, and the extremes to which he goes to maintain them. Russell is not a bad individual, in that he doesn't intentionally harm anyone, but he often fails to see the true victims of his actions (i.e. the ones who care about him). Eventually Russell's world crumbles in around him, and he is forced to go far to get back the things he loves. A common motif in I Love You Phillip Morris is that no matter how hard he try, Russell never quite figures out how to get back his lifestyle because he never sees the legal way out of any situation. This creates a few solid laughs, but a very repetitive sequence of events.
Jim Carrey is serviceable as Russell, willingly giving in to the more 'physical' requirements of the role. The comedy style gears itself more in favor of Carrey's patented hyperbolic style, which is met with mixed results. Many of the film's best comedic moments come to fruition when Carrey's style is mellowed in favor of a more audible comedy. During the film's more dramatic moments, Carrey is more than up to the task, nailing them brilliantly. Unfortunately, there's just not a lot of them.
Under-utilizing Ewan McGregory and Leslie Mann, writing-directing team John Requa and Glenn Ficarra maintain a very 'bright' and colorful approach to the film. Much of the movie's drama is supplanted in favor of beautiful imagery and silly antics. They manage to avoid the classic director mishap of constantly reminding the audience of their sexuality through cheap punchlines, while still extracting as much lighthearted humor as they can. This left me with a struggle between my joy for the humor and the movie's obvious desire to avoid in depth character analysis.
Many of the decisions our characters make feel void and out of context. The reason being: we aren't given the context. Requa and Ficarra draw a great deal of love for callbacks to fill in the missing pieces of a sequence. This is a common method used in confidence films to display how a trick was pulled off by the hero after we see the end results. However, its use is usually tame and kept to a minimum. I Love You Phillip Morris lives in the callback. Throughout the film we are constantly flashing back to things our narrator, Russell, skipped telling us until some time later when they may or may not apply. It's not the worst thing you can do, but when you're flashing back in mid-flashback there needs to be a cease and desist letter sent pronto.
Much like its cast of characters, I Love You Phillip Morris survives on a happy-go-lucky mentality that permeates throughout the runtime. It never reaches for more than meets the eye, keeping the comedy and exaggerated nature of the entire thing at the forefront. The characters are strong enough for the haul, but will likely sprint through one ear and out the other once the credits roll. A bit more background and supporting scenes, with a better blend of drama and con antics, and this could have been a real gem of a film. It's not, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't check it out. In the end, I Love You Phillip Morris is a fine, amusing, comedy that plays well to the strengths of its cast... when it decides to use them.
Film Credits: Written and Directed By: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa Based on the Biography By: Steve McVicker