(director/writer: John Requa and Glenn Ficarra; screenwriter: based on the book by Steve McVicker; cinematographer: Xavier Pérez Grobet; editor: Thomas J. Nordberg; music: Nick Urata; cast: Jim Carrey (Steven Russell), Ewan McGregor (Phillip Morris), Leslie Mann (Debbie), Rodrigo Santoro (Jimmy), Antoni Corone (Dan Lindholm), Brennan Brown (Birkheim), Michael Mandel (Cleavon), Annie Golden (Eudora); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Andrew Lazar/Far Shariat; Roadside Attractions; 2009)

You couldn’t make this story up, as the truth proves to be stranger than fiction.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A bizarre dramedy based on the real-life story of a con man,Steven Russell (Jim Carrey). It plays out as a daffy social satire and love story, and a risk taking pic for Carrey who has ambitions to cross-over from buffoonish commercial ventures to artistic pics. It’s co-written and co-directed by first timers John Requa and Glenn Ficarra (they wrote the screenplay for the alternative Christmas classic Bad Santa), and is based on the book by Steve McVicker–a former investigative reporter for The Houston Chronicle. It serves as an acting exercise for Carrey, who dives right into the role of the love starved gay man with the schizoid personality of a charlatan and a sincere romantic.

The pic is framed around Steven Russell waiting to die in a hospital bed and narrating his life story, and telling us in a comically serious tone “Love’s the reason I’m layin’ here dyin’.”

At an early age Steven learns he was adopted. He becomes a Virginia Beach police officer because he’s obsessed with locating his real mother, and figures a cop will have access to getting records an ordinary citizen doesn’t have. Steven sings in the church choir, is happily married to ditsy Bible-thumper Debbie (Leslie Mann) and has two young children; but is gay and secretly has many gay lovers. When Steven is injured in a near-fatal car accident, while rushing to see one of his male lovers–he afterwards decides to visit his birth mom to let her know he turned out just fine, only he’s again rejected.With that Steven comes clean and lets everyone know he’s gay. This means quitting the force and divorcing Debbie. The next move has Steven as a con man living with the hunky Jimmy (Rodrigo Santoro) in South Beach. Steven’s credit-card and insurance scam catches up with him and he serves prison time in Texas, meanwhile Jimmy dies of AIDS. In prison the energetic smoothy con man meets the shy, gentle and weepy Southern gentleman Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), and they slow dance in their cell to Johnny Mathis’ “Chances Are” and become lovers with Steven aggressively becoming his protector and provider. Through manipulating the system (Steven posing as a lawyer) Steven and Phillip are freed, and live together on the outside. By falsifying his resume, Steven is hired by Lindholm (Antoni Corone) to be the chief financial officer at hismedical management company. Steven scams the company for a fortune, and claims to be a hopeless romantic doing it so his lover can live a high maintenance lifestyle in lavender luxury. Eventually Steven’s tripped-up and sent again to a Texas prison.

Warning: spoiler in next paragraph.

We now catch up to the opening scene of Steven in a hospital bed, if you can believe, faking AIDS. Steven’s daring plan works and he escapes, but is caught and gets a life sentence with no parole (we’re told the sentence was so stiff because Steven made fools out of the jailers and the prison system, and deeply embarrassed Governor Bush).

You couldn’t make this story up, as the truth proves to be stranger than fiction. Problem is the movie never made Steven’s criminal spree in fraud, deception, impersonations and prison escape seem believable (the deeper we get into the crime spree, the less believable it becomes) or was there any real chemistry between the big stars as lovers (it only seemed like play acting) or did its pro-con man story have much of an emotional impact with the viewer (it was hard to see what was so likable about such an untrustworthy two-faced character). It was filmed as a comedy and gave Carrey a chance to do all his usual physical comedy routines, but the broad comedy missed the mark more often than it hit to attract either the arthouse crowd or Carrey’s usual mall viewers. But it’s a Carrey pic alright, just a hard one to label. In any case, this lighthearted film about a master escape artist and impostor and a non-violent but ambitious sociopath, promotes a homosexual agenda with no patronizing from straights and shows us that Hollywood can at least after Brokeback Mountain attempt to make a film showing a gay person indulging openly in lusty sex–the problem is can they make a good film on this subject matter and get an audience for it. They had the right star in Carrey, but blew it by having a flawed script and uneven direction (we never knew if we were supposed to laugh or cry).

It premiered at Sundance in 2009, but was not released for over a year because the frightened studio heads were thinking there was no great audience for such a lurid gay film.

I Love You Phillip Morris