The best part of I Love You, Phillip Morris is the mad dash you make to Wikipedia afterwards to find out how much of the film is actually true. It’s also the most disappointing part, but not for the reasons you’d expect. What you learn from Wikipedia and the off-shooting sources is that what you’re told in the film about Steven Jay Russell, the man played by Jim Carrey in the film, are not only true, but that there’s more to it. In fact, you can get a much better idea of who Steven Russel is from Wikipedia and one newspaper interview than you can from the entirety of I Love You, Phillip Morris. It’s not that directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (the writers behind Cats and Dogs and Bad Santa) took excessive dramatic liberties, it’s that they took egregious tonal liberties, and in trying to force a dark comedy down the throat of a potentially brilliant biopic, they robbed the story of its much better truth.
Steven Jay Russell is a brilliant con man, maybe one of the smartest real-life criminals you’ve never heard of. He was adopted by a conservative family and later, became a police officer to be in a better position to track down his real parents. Eventually rejected by his birth mother, Russell decided to abandon his wife and child and come out of the closet after a car accident brought on an epiphany, only to realize that his homosexual lifestyle required larger financial means. So, he engaged in a series of scams and small cons to support himself.
He would eventually get busted and imprisoned, where he’d meet Phillip Morris, who was in the clink for over-borrowing a rental car. The two fell in love, and their love affair would continue after Russell left prison and helped to secure Morris’ release. But it wasn’t too long before Russell found his way back into prison, after he created fake identities and qualifications to become a high-level corporate drone in a couple of food-service companies.
It’s here where the man’s real life took a turn for the really fascinating — masquerading as judges, police officers, and handymen, among others, Russell successfully broke out of prison on multiple occasions. Unfortunately, much of the real con man artistry is reduced to montage in I Love You, Phillip Morris, exchanged for more focus on the relationship between Russell and Morris.
Indeed, part of the problem with the movie is Phillip Morris himself. It’s not that Ewan McGregor, who plays Morris, does a major disservice to the character (he plays Morris as a slightly more fey version of his Moulin Rouge character); it’s that the character seems almost superfluous. He does provide the motive for the prison escapes, but the love story doesn’t ring true. It may have been brave to cast to A-listers in a movie with explicit gay sex scenes, but it never feels like any more more than two heterosexual actors winking at the audience, “Look! We’re straight, but we’re having the butt sex on camera! Aren’t we bold?” No. What Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger did in Brokeback Mountain was bold, because theirs was a love story we could believe. What Jim Carrey is doing in Phillip Morris is barely a notch more restrained than Firemarshall Bob riding his hose to gay town.
What Steven Russell managed to do in the final chapter of his life, before being shuffled off into permanent solitary confinement (where he still resides) was both heartbreaking and extraordinary. But, in I Love You, Phillip Morris, it’s played off as a dark joke, and one that’s not particularly funny. Had Steven Russell and Phillip Morris felt like real people, instead of swishy gay caricatures in a bad screwball comedy, I Love You, Phillip Morris could’ve been a superb romantic caper. What it is, instead, is a flat gay-love farce that exchanges the truth for antics and butt sex. The intention may have been to advance gay relationships in film, but more than anything, the dumb gay stereotypes set us back to zero sum.