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A Silver Lining 'Round the Pitch-Black Gags

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Russell’s many guises recall a variety of past Carrey roles: he starts out a cop (as in Me, Myself, and Irene), poses as a lawyer (bluffing his way through court like his beleaguered slicker in Liar Liar), and cons his way into the finance industry (shades of the disgruntled, laid-off employee in Fun with Dick and Jane); and what are a series of elaborate cons if not an attempt, in a sense, to play God (a la Bruce Almighty)?

Those movies, like The Cable Guy (which features its own kind of con man in Carrey’s pseudonymous Chip Douglas), largely feature Carrey doing shtick while the other actors, maybe even the filmmakers, stand back and watch. But Phillip Morris, for all of its pitch-black gags about financial fraud, prison beatings, and Russell’s pathological deception, is surprisingly grounded when it comes to Russell’s relationship with Morris, who McGregor plays as naïve and perhaps even a little dim, but utterly sweet. McGregor doesn’t try to match Carrey’s intensity, but he doesn’t shrink from him, either.

cover art

I Love You Phillip Morris

Director: Glen Ficarra and John Requa
Cast: Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor, Leslie Mann

(Roadside Attractions; US DVD: 5 Apr 2011)

Constantly on the run but actually chasing after something, Carrey the actor seems free even when he’s expertly conveying the scrambling panic and desperation as walls close in on Russell (as they do, repeatedly). The part also provides an outlet abandonment and self-destructive issues Carrey makes joking reference to on the Cable Guy commentary. For a time, Russell earns money semi-legitimately as a CFO—his credentials are a sham, but his aptitude for the job seems genuine. But just as Carrey the star mistrusted his own $20 million payday, Russell starts ripping off his own company, forging another comparison to a dogged born comic: he just can’t help himself.

Though Carrey refers to I Love You Phillip Morris during the new Cable Guy commentary, he’s absent from the I Love You Phillip Morris track—disappointing, given the number of participants. But Ficarra and Requa make ample reference to Carrey’s sometimes uncanny, sometimes downright peculiar talent: apparently he can locate the center of the camera lens offhand better than any actor they’ve seen, perhaps part of his innate physical dexterity. They also point out which moments were Carrey’s improvisations; they turn out to be some of the best moments of the film, like the darkly hilarious early scene where Russell confronts his birth mother and can’t get past the screen door slammed in his face.

As with his bigger comedies, then, I Love You Phillip Morris is a major showcase for Carrey. The difference this time is that the movie isn’t just a treadmill designed to keep Carrey front and center. Ficarra and Requa’s daring leaps of tone recall, by various turns, the brothers Coen and Farrelly, giving their actor the depth and texture for an awards-caliber performance. It’s his best movie in years.

A shame, then, that I Love You Phillip Morris is also Carrey’s lowest-grossing, least-seen movie since he became a superstar. Though he’s still a big name, his clout wasn’t enough to get the film into more than 100 US theaters, less a victim of Carrey’s diminished returns than the fallen overall star market. As it turns out, he would be one of the last stars to reach the threshold of popularity that resulted in the (delightful) Cable Guy folly.

A few other comedians in his peer group, notably fellow stand-up/sketch comedian Adam Sandler and old buddy Ben Stiller, went on to join him on the A-list, and certainly others—Leonardo DiCaprio; Russell Crowe; Robert Downey Jr.—have become non-comic box office draws since 1996. But Carrey was one of the last stars of recent history (maybe second-to-last, followed by the indomitable Will Smith) to establish such a strong brand, to serve as the main box office attraction rather than a major asset.

Carrey gives his all in both The Cable Guy and I Love You Phillip Morris, bravely exposing his darker impulses while scoring big, sometimes uncomfortable laughs. But by the time he reached his later breakthrough, far fewer people were looking. Or maybe they were looking for something else: that familiar soloist in an innocuous vacuum.

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