In 'Phillip Morris,' A Criminally Charming Fellow

Ewan McGregor and Jim Carrey

hide captionMatch Made In Prison: Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor, left) joyfully greets con man Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) during one of Russell's outlandish escape plans — all of which are aimed at winning them a happily-ever-after outside the barbed wire.

Patti Perret/Roadside Attractions

I Love You Phillip Morris

  • Director: John Requa, Glenn Ficarra
  • Genre: Comedy/Drama/Romance
  • Running Time: 98 minutes

Rated R for sexual content including strong dialogue and language.

With: Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro, Michael Mandel

(Recommended)

The con-man comedy I Love You Phillip Morris premiered almost two years ago at the Sundance Film Festival, garnering lots of talk, admiring reviews, and laughs aplenty. It has since played around the world from London to Hong Kong, even becoming a surprise smash in Latvia. Only now, however, is it opening in the U.S.

The reasons for the delay — rival distributors, lawsuits and so on — aren't as intriguing as the true story that inspired the film. I'll brush that in below (for more details, check out Pat Dowell's prison interview), but let's start with the improbable-but-true story of the unreliable narrator at the center of it all. His name's Steven Russell, and he lived what you might call a storied life. For a while, he was a stand-up guy: a policeman, a church organist, by all accounts a good father and by his wife's account a great husband.

He was also a scam artist and con man who led police on a merry — no, make that a gay — chase for quite a few years.

See, marriage and kids notwithstanding, Steven, played in the film by an antic Jim Carrey, was living life on the down-low. (But in high style, which proved expensive.) When he started scamming insurance companies, employers and pretty much anyone else who came his way, he ended up in prison.

That's where he met title character Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor) a sweet guy who was serving time not for tobacco abuses (the cigarette company spells its moniker with one 'L'), but for keeping a rental car too long. Sweeping Phillip into his confidence and off his feet, Steven thereafter did most of his cons in order to keep the two of them together.

Liar Liar meets Obi-Wan? Who'da thunk even fearless star power could make these two work as a romantic pair? But both stars prove to be enormous fun in a gay love story played straight in a thoroughly crooked context —a comic crooked context, mind you, with lots of physical comedy because that's what Jim Carrey does, and a surprising amount of actual feeling, because that's also what Jim Carrey does, though he's not often given credit for it.

The result? A love-struck Catch Me If You Can, in which Steven cons his way out of prison, cons Phillip's way out of prison and even cons Phillip when he can, occasionally coming home with dollar bills spilling out of every pocket as if it's the most natural thing in the world.

Ewan McGregor i i

hide captionBeyond the prison gates, Phillip Morris (McGregor) tries to live peacefully despite Steven's continued scams.

Patti Perret/Roadside Attractions
Ewan McGregor

Beyond the prison gates, Phillip Morris (McGregor) tries to live peacefully despite Steven's continued scams.

Patti Perret/Roadside Attractions

You'd think all of this would be lent a certain gravitas by the fact that the off-screen Steven Russell is a real con, sitting in a real Texas prison. Having escaped four times, he has now embarrassed state authorities so much that they keep him on 23-hour lockdown for fear that if they allow him to mingle with the general prison population, he'll escape again. One time, he even managed to convince them he'd died.

But writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa — the guys who wrote Bad Santa — are hardly the sort of filmmakers who'd approach this story as a biopic. They cut seriousness with laughs at every plot twist; they're frank about sexuality without ever making gayness a punchline. They allow their stars to shine without pushing them to go over-the-top.

And they end up with a hilariously unlikely but entirely believable comic love story — even as they pull a couple of ingeniously outrageous cons on the audience. (Recommended)

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