Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s true-crime saga hustles viewers into a clever confidence game: a deathbed confession riddled with delayed revelations, bait-and-switch surprises, and unpredictable reversals of trajectory and tone. But what else would you expect from Steven Russo (Jim Carrey), a conman à clef based on an infamous real-life grifter and compulsive liar Steven Russell? Revisiting the subgenre of the screwball caper, Bad Santa and Bad News Bears scribes Ficarra and Requa have made a wildly successful directorial debut. These dudes could have made a career coasting on colorful vulgarities but have instead developed their past themes in revelatory ways. They’ve also provided Jim Carrey with his freshest, funniest role since The Cable Guy. (Suck on that, Tom Shadyac.)
When the film begins, Steven (Carrey) is a poster boy for the Moral Majority: church organist, deputy cop, dutiful provider for his daughter and wife (Leslie Mann). But after a near fatal car crash, Steven quickly reevaluates his priorities. “I’m gay,” he tells his family—and moves to fabulous Miami. Sewing a lifetime’s worth of wild oats, Steven starts “living high on the gay hog”—wining and dining, South Beach shopping sprees, weekends at tony hotels. “Being gay is really expensive,” he concludes. Prohibitively so for a high-school-educated produce wholesaler. So Russo pulls himself up by his patent-leather bootstraps and starts moonlighting: credit fraud, insurance scams, criminal misrepresentation.
Several warrants and one botched suicide later, he goes directly to jail. Enter inmate Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), cute as a puppy and twice as trusting. “I’m a lawyer,” Steven lies, proffering consultations on a pro boner basis. Cue the falling-in-love montage (Johnny Mathis crooning, the two jailbirds swooning), a sequence at once blackly comic in its juxtaposition of prison brutalities and yet as syrupy sincere as Penny Serenade, the Old Hollywood weepie glimpsed briefly on a rec-room TV. Steven promises Phillip he’ll go straight. Phillip swallows Steven’s beautiful lies as easily as his gifted chocolates—a pretty apt metaphor considering he’s diabetic. But old habits die hard. Steven Russo’s most outrageous crimes are still ahead.
I Love You Phillip Morris sharpens Ficarra and Requa’s Sturges-esque satirical vision of the American Dream. As hilariously risqué and sardonically incisive as ever, they’ve also refined their psychological portraiture in surprising ways. Billy Bob Thornton could toss off Bad-ass one-liners with ease, but the intentional flatness of his character was always a few degrees shy of sketch comedy. Steven is written with psychological complexities and emotional undercurrents nowhere suggested in the Thornton films. Carrey’s performance may be the most well-rounded and satisfying of his career, reconciling the schizophrenic energy of his physical comedy with the psychological grounding and realistic restraint of his dramatic work. Which begs the question: Oscar bait? Past Carrey roles have been the subject of speculation but the Academy has repeatedly passed him over. “It’s an honor to be nominated,” he joked one year, promptly breaking down in alligator tears. But this time around he has a secret weapon: the gayness.
One of the many things we homos have in common with Nazi-era Germans and the mentally retarded is our irresistible Oscar-baiting allure. “The Brokeback Mountain of American comedy” is a phrase that’s already popped up in several reviews. You can be sure that the publicists will Milk that angle for all its worth. But as far as the Academy goes, there’s good gay (a nobly suffering victim: self-hating, gay-bashed, or slowly dying of AIDS) and bad gay (sexually satisfied and guilt-free). So, for ex-ample: pounding a mustached muscle bottom as he begs, “Do it, man! Come in my ass!”? Way too faggoty for Hollywood—but then again, I would have thought that was also true for a star of Jim Carrey’s caliber. So maybe I’m wrong. A Best Actor nod for this performance would be the greatest gay Oscar moment since Sally Fields’s acceptance speech. Because then we would know that you don’t just tolerate us. Then we’d know that you like us. That you really like us.