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Directors: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Writers: John Requa, Glenn Ficarra
Stars: Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor, Leslie Mann
It’s fair to say that despite his character’s name being right in the title, Ewan McGregor might be considered a supporting actor in this biographical drama. Jim Carrey plays Steven Russell, a good father and husband who is the very epitome of the perfect American citizen. But one day, his parents tell him he is adopted, which for some reason, shatters his very existence. He quits his life and flips it completely around, believing he has no real identity and whatever he was before, is only a charade of the the real him.
Who is the real Steven Russell? Well for him, it starts with a horrific car accident, and while being pulled from the wreckage has an epiphany and chooses to be gay, which is itself a bit odd as that’s not normally something one can choose. You either are or you aren’t. But no matter for Russell who takes to the ‘lifestyle’ in the most audacious and flamboyantly stereotypical way possible, even moving in with a Latin man named Jimmy (Rodrigo Santoro). Not long after, experimenting more with false identities, he takes up fraud, passing bad checks and credit cards. Naturally, he gets into trouble, and eventually ends up in prison, which would be very bad, but that changes when he meets his new cellmate, Phillip Morris.
He and Morris are very much attracted to each other, and it’s not long before Morris is in love with Russell. Russell is too, and I mean with himself, with Morris, and the very idea of the word love and everything that goes with it. Morris is not just impactful on Russell, he’s afflicting. Russell is consumed by the gentle naivety and boundless affection Phillip possess. When Russell is released, he becomes obsessed with freeing Morris. He creates a new persona, one of a lawyer and he manipulates the system and gets Morris out. This is just the beginning.
Carrey is remarkable and profoundly good as the real-life Russell, elevating himself to a level he hasn’t reached since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s a powerful performance and one that challenges his fans and audiences to see him in a way none coming to watch will expect. Because of this, it’s easy to overlook McGregor, who creates one the best character’s he’s ever performed. The intimacy and physicality of the role, which sees he and Carrey engage in many profoundly moving and touching moments in each other’s arms, resonates with great affect. Russell is like a tidal wave of compassion, understanding, and authenticity sweeping over the highly susceptible Morris.
The thing that makes this work so well is the commitment to the absurdity and how McGregor’s character binds it together in the most believable way. That’s not to say that Carrey is over-the-top. In fact, despite the colorfulness of his role, he is rather subdued and delivers a richly nuanced performance. The story is the pill, and to swallow it is to know that it is all based on fact, no matter how bizarre. The things Russell does are shocking, and because of that, the very grounded and centered Morris comes off all the more effective. To even consider being in the same scene with Carrey is surely a monumental intimidation for many who are his co-star, but McGregor rises to the challenge and even steals a few scenes of his own.
I Love You Phillip Morris is not a typical film for its leads, and fans of both may find the leap difficult, which is a shame if true. Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, there is a solid mix of humor and drama here, and both are elevated by the story’s humanity. These are characters we easily invest in, neither made a fool or portrayed as such, even though Russell is clearly in need of help. A film that didn’t get the exposure or studio support it should have, many don’t even know it exists. Find it. Watch it. This is a great film.