I Love You Phillip Morris presents such an incredible true story that the filmmakers feel it necessary to inform viewers — twice in the opening credits — that it really happened. You may still think it's a put-on when the movie ends.
Yes, there really is a Phillip Morris (no relation to the cigarette company), a demure man who fell in love in prison with a flamboyant con artist named Steven Russell. Everything audacious that Steven did for love — and currently serves a 144-year sentence for perpetrating — is re-created here and absolutely true. You can look it up.
Believing is crucial for fully appreciating this movie. After one screening, I Love You Phillip Morris felt like an indecent comedy stretching for situations to drop in another dirty joke. After some research, I watched it again. I'm now convinced that this isn't only the best comedy of 2010 but also the year's most astonishing romance.
A warning to sensitive moviegoers: Co-creators Glenn Ficarra and John Requa made the raunchy Bad Santa, which made my Top 10 list, leading to irate responses from readers who only read the "A" and not the cautionary review. Like Bad Santa, I Love You Phillip Morris is a movie without boundaries, this time with regard to sexuality, religion, ethics and AIDS.
Don't go if you are easily offended. Don't blame me if you do.
Having said that, let's acknowledge the sweet sincerity of this movie, even in its most outrageous moments. Much of it is uncovered in the performances of Jim Carrey as Steven and Ewan McGregor as Phillip, each boldly evoking characters that uncomfortably felt like coquettish gay stereotypes — until learning that the real Steven and Phillip are just like them.
Steven lived in the closet for years, married to a devoted wife (Leslie Mann), playing piano in the church choir and serving on the police force. Sneaking out for homosexual encounters leads to a car crash that nearly kills him. On the stretcher, Steven vows he'll live his life the way he wants from now on, leaving his family for Miami Beach and a hot Cuban boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro).
"Being gay is very expensive," Steven learns, and he turns to bogus credit cards to finance an extravagant lifestyle. One con leads to another and Steven winds up in a Texas prison, where one day in the rec room he spies the love of his life. Phillip is a timid man with the air of a Southern belle, and Steven rushes in to offer protection. Using his prison connections, they become cell mates and energetic lovers.
From there, I Love You Phillip Morris must be seen (maybe twice) to be believed. Steven's schemes to keep Phillip in his life involve multiple prison escapes, posing as a lawyer, a corporate executive and another guise that won't be spoiled here but is the ultimate in distasteful devotion. Think Catch Me If You Can mashed up with Brokeback Mountain if Mel Brooks directed and you'll get the idea.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.