“Nobody talks about this, but being gay is really expensive,” narrates recidivist con man Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) in the gleefully cartoonish, occasionally transcendent I Love You Phillip Morris, which suggests both a middle-aged queer rewrite of Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can and how one of Jean Genet’s thieves might’ve aspired to an Out magazine photo-spread lifestyle in 1990s America. Employing sunny visuals and the editing rhythms of a fast-paced farce in counterpoint to an early scene of prone, sallow Steven in a hospital bed (“Love is the reason I’m layin’ here dyin’”), the movie’s fodder is the identification of gayness with post-closet consumerism and the eternal tableau of prison buggery, here transformed into fertile ground for true love. Carrey’s cheerful criminal and the milquetoast sweetie (Ewan McGregor) he meets behind bars aren’t hip bad boys from a Gregg Araki pastiche, but courtly smoochers to Johnny Mathis and chaste writers of smuggled, gushy letters, at least until, cellmates at last, Phillip tears at Steven’s pants as he groans “Enough romance, let’s fuck.”
Written and directed by Bad Santa scribes Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, and adapted from a true-crime chronicle (“Really,” insists an opening title), I Love You Phillip Morris gets off on gender-fucking the conventions of romantic and caper comedies while reaping subversive moments of tenderness from its committed central performance. Carrey, whose candidacy as one of the best film actors of the last 20 years may go unspoken due to anti-comedy snobbery, gives Steven’s devotion to Phillip a rapt authenticity right from their moony meeting, attired in lemon-yellow jumpsuits, in their Texas prison’s library. As stylized and wacky as the narrative is, Steven, whether ditching his fundamentalist wife (Leslie Mann) and kids, starting a career in fraud to support his lavish Miami nightlife, or feigning his way through a CFO position at a medical management company, is a man on a mission, his chicanery fueled by his concept of sexual liberation and then an idealized lover. (Paradoxically, some of Carrey’s least effective scenes are the shtickiest, as when he stumbles through a court appearance posing as a lawyer; instead, his sneaky capacity to show Jack Lemmonesque sincerity beneath the character’s guile prevails.) As shy, almost dainty Phillip, McGregor mostly yields the spotlight to his co-star; that he’s the naïve, moralistic scold of the couple (“Did you do something?!” he nags when the police come knocking) is a pretty neat casting joke, given his history of studly bad-boy roles.
I Love You Phillip Morris saves its nerviest twist for the last act; let’s just say it pulls a fast one re: mortal illness, that a con artist is bound to be an unreliable narrator, and that this reversal will probably feed accusations by gay-PC police that it feels like a queer story made into a smirky travesty by straights. Horseshit. The film has taken nearly two years to get U.S. distribution, and fear of humor-impairment among gays, liberals, and bigots undoubtedly was a major factor in the delay. From its opening image of little Steven seeing a dick in the clouds to the accompaniment of a psychedelic luau theme, Ficarra and Requa’s movie steadily if unevenly permits its homo hero a vision of paradise, and that foundation fills the space between the sight gags and sex jokes with empathy. And the script economically delivers the go-to punchline of pre-Sarah Palin America: “Texas.”