The actor who adopts a series of masks but has no core has been a tired existential trope since (at least) Sartre’s Kean, but as Steven Russell, a gay con man in I Love You, Phillip Morris, Jim Carrey makes it sing. Carrey is the least filled-in of modern clowns, the most desperate, as if he’d dissolve if he stopped doing (or turning) tricks. That desperation takes on an astonishing emotional resonance when the character is gay and forced to live and work in a homophobic culture. “Normal” is nonsensical, deceit the deepest logic. Subterfuge, compartmentalization—they become second nature. This is where Carrey triumphs, by playing Steven as a man who plays other people.
When he impersonates a successful business executive with a joshing, how’s-your-golf-game façade, the ironic quotation marks around every hearty back slap are terribly funny and terribly sad—because you know, as Steven knows, that he’ll push it and push it and push it until he’s exposed. His Achilles Heel is a fair young man (Ewan McGregor) he meets in prison with the name Phillip Morris. There’s no artifice there. He loves Phillip Morris.
Based on the non-fiction book by former Houston Chronicle investigative reporter Steve McVicker, I Love You Phillip Morris has been splendidly written and almost consistently misdirected by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. They wrote the excellent gonzo script of Bad Santa and had the luck of having Terry Zwigoff direct it fresh off his R. Crumb documentary. For Zwigoff, as for Crumb, there is no line between the realistic and the freakish—freakishness is realism of the purest kind. But Ficarra and Requa have a low-camp aesthetic that’s tiresome and dated and, for actors, a kind of anti-straitjacket, forcing them into cartoon mode. That doesn’t affect the leads, though. Carrey’s particular mania transcends camp, and McGregor goes in the opposite direction: He makes Phillip so passive and low-key that he seems to exist in a different realm from the other actors. It’s not an especially compelling performance, but you can see why Carrey’s Steven would find Phillip a balm.
Even camped-up, the first two-thirds of the film is exhilarating. The last part, in which Steven is jailed and then escapes and is jailed and then escapes and is jailed, etc., is… audacious, but, as my synopsis implies, monotonous. Like the ongoing story of its real-life subject, the film doesn’t have much of a finish. But it must be seen for Carrey, for its portrait of a clown in agony—and in clover.