Dir. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
(2010, R, 102 min)
★ ★ ★

Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) started lying early and never stopped, like a snowball rolling downhill. That’s how he learned to get along in life, and eventually it was the only way he knew. It’s how you get and keep a job. It’s how you get and keep love. It’s how you make people trust and admire you. And sometimes lying is how you get out of another lie. I Love You Phillip Morris, which tells his story, is a fascinating portrait of compulsion, showing how a brilliant man, fueled by narcissism, self-entitlement, and sometimes plain survival instinct, got on the wrong track and never got off it.

The film is based on a true story: Russell was famous for his fraud schemes and prison breaks in the ‘80s and ‘90s and is currently serving a life sentence in Texas. I won’t try to suss out which details are directly factual and which have been fictionalized; I’ll only discuss the content of the film (though a quick perusing of Russell’s Wikipedia page suggests that the most brazen schemes depicted by the film are true). At the start, Russell works as a police officer in Georgia, where he marries Debbie (Leslie Mann), has a daughter, and learns two things: (1) how to use his position for illicit means and (2) how to lead a double life. He’s secretly gay, but after a traumatic car accident he vows to live his life openly and honestly.

Curses, foiled again!

That’s true inasmuch as he lives as an openly gay man. Honesty he isn’t so good at. He convinces himself that a proud gay lifestyle is one of constant indulgence and to pay for it he commits insurance fraud, which he discusses in voice-overs as casually as one would describe another day at the office. He’s inevitably arrested, and while serving his prison sentence he meets fellow inmate Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a soft-spoken Southern gentleman in jail for stealing a rental car. Russell believes it’s love at first sight, so naturally the first thing he does is lie to poor Phillip, claiming to be a lawyer to impress him. Every scheme Russell undertakes from this point forward is for Phillip’s sake.

As interesting as the film is, it’s also a bit of a mess. It was written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who start with a tone of broad, sometimes uncomfortable comedy, the kind we might expect from the writers of Bad Santa. (Imagine Carrey’s Liar Liar, but meaner and more cynical.) When Russell meets Phillip, the filmmakers add a level of bawdy-sweet romance. And late in the film comes an attack of melodrama. To combine these different tones requires greater finesse than Ficarra and Requa show in their feature debut; their film careens when it tries to shift gears. There are moments when even McGregor, a good actor in a variety of styles, seems unsure of himself, as during a confrontation with Russell at their mansion where his heart doesn’t quite seem to be in his dialogue; is this supposed to be funny, dramatic, or so dramatic it’s funny, McGregor might be asking himself.

But there is frequent inspiration amidst the inconsistency, like a dance between Russell and Phillip in their jail cell while guards struggle with a neighboring inmate; the rest of the world falls away in the film’s best fusion of dark comedy and romance. Later on is a terrific montage that shows a succession of prison escapes and recaptures as Russell attempts to return to Phillip; what a creative and enterprising person this con man is, how adaptable and intuitive, yet utterly misguided in his efforts. The screenplay unnecessarily proposes a psychological explanation: Russell lies because he doesn’t really know who he is. But, to me, he doesn’t seem to have a crisis of identity. As played by Carrey in his best performance in years, he seems never to have given himself much thought. He is who he is and wants what he wants. His tragedy is that he never learned how to do it right.