What I Love You Phillip Morris (trailer above) has going for it is a great story. The saga of impostor and con artist Steven Jay Russell is unbelievable, outrageous — it’s beyond your wildest imagination.
It’s also a true story. This point is emphasized during the opening credits, which state: “this really happened.”
What the movie has working against it is that it stars Jim Carrey. Carrey is not an actor who leaps to mind if you need to make an outrageous story credible. He’s enormously famous mostly for playing preposterous characters. Sure, he has had some straighter roles in The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but even those films were at least once removed from ordinary reality.
As I Love You Phillip Morris begins, Steven Russell survives a car crash, comes out as gay, leaves his wife and young daughter, and moves to Miami. There, he supports himself through an ever-escalating series of charades and cons.
Phillip Morris is not the tobacco company, but instead an inmate (played by Ewan McGregor) with whom Russell falls in love during the first of many incarcerations.
This deep, all-consuming love drives Russell into further wild and crazy schemes and impostures. There appears to be nothing too far-fetched for him to attempt in order to be with Morris in a life of luxury.
But Russell’s love does not drive him to spend much time with Morris, nor to reveal any of his scamming to his life partner. For his part, Phillip Morris mostly relaxes in their sumptuous home, says hello and goodbye to Russell, and apparently just assumes the house and the cars and everything else are products of honest work.
Very little feeling between the two men is conveyed, and not much insight into Steven Russell is offered. Is there some grand plan behind his escapades? Does he live in fear of being exposed? The movie does not pause to examine him. As Russell, Jim Carrey pulls stunt after stunt and moves on, largely unaffected, like some character in a cartoon.
Even near the end, when the story finds Steven Russell in extremely tragic condition, we empathize mostly because of his circumstances, and not as a result of any illumination.
I Love You, Phillip Morris, the directorial debut of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, is shot as unsubstantially as it is written and acted. Its conventional lighting, cinematography, and generic sets would fit neatly in any standard TV movie. Nothing is done to communicate a sense of the reality of this true story.
The net effect is disappointment. Despite the assertion that “this really happened,” the movie does nothing to convince you of that. Reading a simple profile of the real Steven Russell — like The Observer’s “I love you Phillip Morris: a conman’s story” — is far more interesting and does not take an hour and a half.
I rate I Love You Phillip Morris two stars out of four.