“Be yourself,” is a quaint piece of advice that’s helpful as long as your life is uncomplicated and you’re a genuinely good person who is bound to be accepted by everyone you meet. Or you could be Stephen Russell, a gay con man who was enjoyed living a lie whether he was in the closet or out of it. I Love You Phillip Morris has the potential to really delve into some fulfilling satire of American attitudes towards homosexual. However, the film is more interested in examining Russell as a larger-than-life individual and using broad dark comedy to make its mark. The film delivers laughs, but it never aspires to leave much of a lasting impression.
Jim Carrey plays Russell: a good, church-going police officer who was a closeted homosexual but decided to come out flaming after a near-fatal car crash. But as Russell explains in his narration, “Being gay is expensive.” So Russell took to being a con man, which worked out okay until he—like all con men who don’t run financial firms—got caught and sent to prison. There he meets Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a gentle soul who’s also in the joint for fraud. The two begin a mostly-honest romance as Stephen makes tiny fibs (like saying he’s a lawyer), but the two are smitten with each other. The film then chronicles how Stephen’s knack for conning kept them together until it tore them apart.
While McGregor adds a lot of heart, the film truly belongs to Carrey. Sadly, it’s a role that could have used a bit more restraint. While Russell is a grandiose figure in terms of his cons and personality, Carrey plays him more like a goofball caricature. He manages to keep Stephen affable, but the performance also creates a distance that makes it difficult to tap into the seriousness of his love for Phillip. It’s a rich character, but he’s constantly hiding behind Carrey’s gigantic grin and cornpone accent.
The film is at turns satirical, goofy, and broad, but it works best when it goes dark. There’s a delightful mean streak running through I Love You Phillip Morris, but directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa skillfully mange to keep it from falling into cynicism. It’s just a big ticking time bomb as we get to know a man who can escape prison but never his own lies. The story flirts with the emotional weight of Stephen’s cumulative cons and his pathological need to hide the truth. It also briefly makes a cultural criticism of how asking a gay person to pretend that their straight, to deny their love and their sexual identity, in turn makes them a kind of con artist. But it never fully grasps the deeper emotion and thoughtful ideas. I Love You Phillip Morris is happiest when it’s making an off-color joke or showing Stephen’s magnificent cons.