I Love You Phillip Morris, the directorial debut of Bad Santa writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, is a romantic comedy about two gay men who meet in prison. It’s also a caper comedy about a con man who’ll do anything to preserve his self-image. And it’s a tragedy, based on the true story of a man so desperate for love that he winds up alone. Ficarra and Requa handle these disparate elements with remarkable alacrity, creating a fast-paced black comedy that’s raunchy and subversive — and strangely moving.
Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) is gay. “Gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay. Have been as long as I can remember,” he tells the audience via voiceover. The film then flashes back to children lying in a field, naming the clouds. Young Steven claims to see “a man’s wiener.” Soon enough we see the sky, bright blue behind a perfectly phallic cumulus humilis. In confirming what Steven’s described, the image also aligns us with his view of the world, which repeatedly reflects his desire.
That doesn’t mean the world conforms to that desire or that he quite gets what he wants. Steven is married to the devoutly Christian Debbie (Leslie Mann), works as a police officer, and plays the organ at church. If he shrugs through his wife’s nightly prayers (“If it weren’t for you, Jesus, I never would have found that last coffee filter”), he loves their daughter and seems comfortable with his wife.
Yet he’s not comfortable enough to reveal his secret. He gropes Debbie in public and has sex with her in private; he confides in her but never confesses his same-sex trysts. He does talk to us, however. After an encounter with a mustachioed man, he explains, “I’d been living a lie for a long, long time. I tend to do that: hide things.” A cipher even to himself, Steven can only describe his behavior, but never explain it. “Sometimes you have to shave a little off the puzzle piece just to make it fit,” he says. There are other places for him to fit, but Steven chooses to lie in order to fit this life.
Until he’s nearly killed in a car crash. He swears off lies and dedicates himself to himself: his wants, his desires, his sexuality. His new life — his take on the “gay lifestyle” — means moving to Miami, getting two small dogs, and finding a boyfriend named Jimmy (Rodrigo Santoro). Shopping becomes his means of self-expression. He takes great pride in knowing the hottest clubs, a sign that he’s “being gay.” (He seems to have internalized Queer Eye for the Straight Guy-era stereotypes.) And when he learns that “Being gay is really expensive,” Steven turns to fraud — a “victimless” crime that fits his natural predilection for deception. In one scene, he flips through a collection of fake driver’s licenses, a handful of fresh starts, men he might one day be.
Throughout these escapades, Carrey establishes Steven as a restless man, a tight coil of nervous energy. His most manic performances have always a dark undercurrent (especially as the Freudian-id-by-way-of-Tex Avery in The Mask), and here he plays a man alternately luxuriating in his body and trying to escape it. Rex Reed says Carrey’s performance lacks “real honesty or conviction,” but the cartoonishness fits this film. Though it’s a story of love and (perhaps) redemption, it’s also a comedy, its “true story” foundation embroidered by its chronically deceptive narrator, Steven. “This really happened. It really did,” claims the film’s opening, cheekily self-aware of the story’s incredibility.
Such awareness doesn’t preclude genuine emotional stakes. Steven falls in love with Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a blond, shyly smiling naïf he meets in prison after his (first) conviction. After their release, Steven pulls together all sorts of lies to provide a life for himself and his love. He fakes his way through court, bluffs his way into a high-paying gig as a financial officer. Still he can’t find his complete, honest self: his lies support that “gay lifestyle,” but undermine his love. “How can I love you? I don’t even know who you are,” Phillip says, then underlines: “You know what’s sad? I don’t even think you know who you are.”
He’s trying to figure it out. All of Steven’s fresh starts have been ways of running from himself. While the film acknowledges the real Steven Russell’s life (he’s currently in a Texas prison under 23-hour-a-day lockdown, serving a 144-year sentence begun in 1998), it leaves its version with a grace note: he finally knows love and knows himself.