To say that Jim Carrey’s films are defined by the elasticity of his face is a little much, but it can give a big, gurning clue about what they hope to achieve. That’s why I Love You Phillip Morris is an anomaly in his portfolio, a film which has familiar rubbery expressions, but also moments of pitch-black humour, drama and a heartfelt love story. It is, all in all, surprisingly hard to define.
The story, which we are reminded is true, follows the life of Steven Jay Russell (Jim Carrey), a con artist and serial prison escapee. During one of his first spells in jail he meets fellow inmate Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), and quickly falls for him. It is the start of a relationship that provides the motor for the film; a love story of exhilarating highs and crushing lows across Russell’s life as a conman, inmate, and fugitive.
The film, which has not been released in the US due to delays finding a distributor, has been re-edited to be less controversial, apparently on the basis of its homosexual content. It is a troubling illustration, if true, of intolerance throughout the US market, and it makes a big statement when films with multiple murders can be seen as mainstream, but those with romantic storylines between two men can’t.
That’s not to say that there are no adult scenes in this film, but the sexual content throughout felt more Carry On than graphic to me. It could be as a consequence of the re-edit of course, but more likely because of the film’s lack of a clear identity, a condition wholly analogous to Russell’s ever-changing persona.
At times the development of Russell and Morris’s relationship, especially in the sex scenes, can feel disturbed by irreverent jokes. It is as if I Love You Phillip Morris cannot decide whether to focus on the drama and character development of the story, or whether to maximise Carrey’s comedy potential, leaving the humour feeling forced and the story interrupted.
That being said, both Carrey and McGregor put in strong performances. Carrey brings his ceaseless energy to a role in which he well cast, an impressionist playing an impressionist, while McGregor is very convincing as the vulnerable Phillip Morris, providing excellent, restrained support that allows a sense of romance and heartbreak to develop subtly. It is his consistency that provides the necessary grounding on which the film succeeds; he invokes compassion, while Russell’s stranger-than-fiction story will keep you entertained throughout.