Few stories can be branded as being too preposterous for fiction, yet Steven Jay Russel's true story fits that bill. Even the movie's tagline describes it as being "A story so incredible, it could only be true". Indeed, how else can you describe the epic journey of a con artist who managed to masquarade as a doctor, lawyer, judge, police officer, corporate CFO, among others, and embezzle millions of dollars. Sounds a bit like "Catch Me If You Can", but unlike Frank Abagnale Jr., Steven Russel was captured several times, escaped out of prison four times, and found true love while locked up (yes, he was gay). Now who could believe that ?
It's all true. It really is. Despite the movie's oddball narrative, Russel's encounters with the penal system are indeed fact-based. The movie, however, written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who previously wrote "Bad Santa", focuses on the love story between Steven (Jim Carrey) and Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). The two lovebirds met while Steven was serving time for insurance fraud. Their love affair seems genuine, but with Steven you can't help but wonder if he really cares about Phillip or if he's trying to sell himself into falling in love, for reasons that only he knows. His intentions seem earnest, even though his actions are completely misguided.
After the pair is released from prison, they immediately set out to build a new life. But Steven's addiction to lies and deceit gets them both in trouble soon enough. Steven spends a great deal of the movie's second half trying to get out of prison and reunite with Phillip. One such attempt involved faking AIDS so that he could get transfered out of the prison facility. And remember, it's all true, it actually happened. What's even more shocking is that all his schemes worked, no matter how crazy they seemed, which is why, when the authorities caught up with him again in 1998, they made sure he would not get another chance to flee. So, they sentenced him to 144 years in prison, which he is, to this day, serving in solitary confinement. If you ask him, it was all done in the name of love.
Jim Carrey is perfect. This is the kind of movie, like "The Truman Show" or "Man on the Moon", where he can stretch his legs both as a comedic and dramatic actor. He can switch quickly from slapstick to dead serious, but the trick is that with this character, underneath his pleasant demeanor, there is always a con waiting to happen. He's almost schizophrenic in that regard. Phillip on the other hand is the exact opposite. Trusting, almost naive, sincere, played by Ewan McGregor as you've never seen him before, is but a victim of Steven's games.
"I Love You Phillip Morris" is unique in the way it plays serious material as light-hearted rom-com, without ever blinding the audience from the harsh realities. We get a glimpse of the world through Steven Russel's eyes and we're perfectly aware of the contrast between his reality and everyone else's. The script is excellent, full of witty dialogue and edgy storytelling. It has that remarkable ability to balance out the fine line between real life events and the requisites of cinema without compromising. As such, if you can stomach the edgier bits, this is one movie you shouldn't miss. Who knows, it might even make it on your Valentine's Day list.