“Stone walls do not a prison make, / Nor iron bars a cage…” —Richard Lovelace, “To Althea, from Prison”
Aww, isn’t Ewan McGregor cute! Here he is, seated opposite co-star Jim Carrey, in their soon-to-be-released romantic comedy I Love You, Phillip Morris. Although Carrey, as real-life pathological liar and repeat offender Stephen Russell, drives the movie forward with his zany con games – some of which work, but most of which land him back in prison – it’s McGregor who anchors it with his adorable smile and misplaced loyalty. His Phillip Morris is the magnetic north to Russell’s emotional compass. And when you look into those oft-betrayed puppy dog eyes of his, you just want to give him a hug (and then some).
But that’s not to diminish Carrey’s brazen lead performance. While he’s occasionally redeemed himself in relatively mellow, pensive roles (like those in The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), he’s as over-the-top and manic here as he ever was in infantile vehicles like Ace Ventura or Dumb & Dumber. But his mugging and silliness in Phillip Morris – whether he’s impersonating a lawyer, defrauding a corporation, or trying to get out of jail yet again – actually aid the film’s very real drama, and never go beyond the very real hijinks perpetrated by Russell himself (who, as the film’s epilogue reveals, is still in jail). Carrey’s clowning finally has some maturity behind it.
In I Love You, Phillip Morris, goofiness and seriousness go hand in hand. Yes, Stephen and Phillip meet in jail, with plausible threats of abuse from guards and fellow inmates hovering around them. But that never stops Stephen’s good-natured verbal humor (“…or you can suck his cock”), nor the all-too-sincere romance that flourishes between the two of them. And it’s Stephen’s never-ending wacky schemes that later destroy their domestic bliss, and shatter poor Phillip’s trust. This is a fast-paced Jim Carrey comedy where the stakes are high: despite his knack for improvisation, our anti-heroic funnyman can’t talk his way out of a ruined relationship.
All of this back-and-forth comes to a delirious (and tearful) climax that proves both Carrey’s unquestionable versatility and the talents of co-writer/directors Glen Ficarra and John Requa for melding comedy and drama. Carrey and McGregor’s Texan accents may strain credibility, and the pacing of the film’s earlier scenes may make your head spin, but still, it’s refreshing to see how Carrey’s career has come full-circle – and to see gay characters played as nuanced human beings, flirting only occasionally with stereotype. And, of course, you should watch I Love You, Phillip Morris to be entranced by McGregor’s beautiful blue eyes. Sigh.