Talk about counterprogramming. If you’re looking for an alternative to family holiday fare (like the latest “Narnia” movie, “Gulliver’s Travels” et al.) or to the self-important artiness of year-end Oscar bait (“The Fighter,” “Black Swan”), you can’t get much loonier than “I Love You Phillip Morris.”
Emerging from a two-year limbo after a debut screening at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, this hard-to-believe but fact-based comedy stars Jim Carrey as Steven Russell. A cop, a pious Christian and a loving family man, he’s married to longtime sweetheart Debbie (Leslie Mann). There’s just one problem, as Steven — in his unreliable voiceover narration — explains: he’s gay. As in flaming. As in, move to Miami and embody every last Gay List stereotype possible.
Co-writers and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa scripted that other scabrous yuletide offering, “Bad Santa.” You don’t go into their new movie expecting politically correct comedy. “Phillip Morris” is gleefully tasteless as it shows Steven flouncing through South Beach with his Versace-clad boy-toy Jimmy (Rodrigo Santoro) and their matching miniature dogs. Of course, Versace shirts and tiny canines are as expensive as they are tacky, which Steven soon discovers. He also discovers a promethean talent for credit card fraud and impersonating someone he is not (a defense attorney, or an accomplished CFO). These newfound gifts lead him to jail … and to the love of his life.
That’s fellow prisoner Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a shy, soft-spoken Southern gay boy who’s the drawling yang to Steven’s wired yin. In no time, Steven bribes guards and bends rules to become Phillip’s cellmate, turning their prison into a maximum-security love nest. That, however, is just the beginning as both men shuttle back out into the real world, and into prison again, with Steven pulling ever more outrageous scams to protect their relationship.
The pleasures of the film are in your discovery of its many reversals and surprise reveals. (Did I mention that Steven is an unreliable narrator?) Also, this is the best work Carrey has done since “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” If he tamped down his crazed id in that lovely 2004 film, he unleashes it fully in “Phillip Morris.” Only here his multiple-personality shtick is in perfect alignment with the character he’s playing.
“I Love You Phillip Morris” comes off as a sky cousin of “Catch Me If You Can” — but with a gay twist, and without the faux father-son dynamics and the self-conscious, prestige-laden hallmarks of that Steven Spielberg film. It’s enjoyably lewd, as cockeyed as a self-made American individual can sometimes be, and also sweetly, crazily romantic.
“I Love You Phillip Morris.” With Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor. Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. 100 minutes. Rated R. At Atlanta’s Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.