Less of a comedy than a hilarious tragedy, “I Love You Phillip Morris” stars Jim Carrey in his most complicated comedic role since “The Cable Guy” and as a character so criminal and gay it will leave auds both laughing and stunned. The rawness of the script by helmers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and sexual bluntness of Carrey and Ewan McGregor’s onscreen romance could limit the film’s exposure, but curiosity about Carrey’s “conversion” will be a big draw. And no one can say that all involved weren’t swinging for the fences.
Based on a real-life story and the novel by onetime Houston Chronicle reporter Steve McVicker, “Phillip Morris” (the cigarette maker spells it with one L) is largely a portrait of a born criminal: During his larcenous lifetime, Steven Russell (Carrey) masquerades as a lawyer and a CEO, passes bad checks, and commits bank fraud, insurance fraud and credit card fraud.
That the film is a gay romance — Phillip Morris (McGregor) will become the love and motivating force of Steven’s life — doesn’t change the fact the lead character is a sociopath, whose first instinct when faced with difficulty is to find some felonious way around it.
Helmers Ficarra and Requa (who penned the equally transgressive “Bad Santa”) load the first 10 minutes of “Phillip Morris” with so much action and development one can’t help but get swept away: After the young Steven is told he’s adopted (the scene with his parents is priceless), he resolves to be the best person he can be, grows up to be a Georgia policeman, plays organ in church, marries Debbie (a terrific Leslie Mann), has two kids, infiltrates the police computer to find his real mother (Mary Louise Burke), is rebuffed by her, goes into a tailspin, has a nasty car crash and emerges from it vowing never to live a lie again: He’s a gay man, and he’s going for it. And he starts living one lie after another.
Carrey has always been a very physical comedian, and though “Phillip Morris” never overplays that fact, Carrey’s body is a large part of the comedy, particularly when Steven moves to Florida and adopts a flamboyant lifestyle and a flamboyant boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro). Steven also cultivates a South Beach existence on a Costco income. “Being gay is really expensive” he discovers, so he starts kiting checks and collecting maxed-out credit cards, eventually going to prison, where he meets gentle blond cell nymph Phillip Morris.
It’s hard to tell how viewers will react to “Phillip Morris,” which has a distinct vein of darkness running beneath its glossy, well-lit, well-costumed surfaces. The direction is more than adept — many of the laughs erupt at the end of scenes, as Carrey or McGregor toss off some seemingly random line, and it sticks.
The cutting, juxtaposition of scenes and reaction shots hit their targets precisely, with Steven’s occasional suicidal plunge turned into a laugh. But given all the references to oral sex, the clingy physicality of Steven and Phillip and the one spectacular, ride-’em-cowboy sex scene involving Carrey, “Phillip Morris” will give some fans of “Ace Ventura” heart attacks
Production values are topnotch, particularly the lush cinematography of Xavier Perez-Grobet (“Before Night Falls”) and the editing of Thomas J. Nordberg.