During one of his multitudinous incarcerations in Texas, slick con man Steven Russell (Jim Carrey, “A Christmas Carol”) meets a pointless little felon named Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor, “The Ghost Writer”) who instantly becomes the love of his life.
Phillip was born on Friday the 13th, which Steven declares is his lucky day. It is. Over a five-year period, Russell escaped from Texas prisons four times, each one on that date. Sounds too unlikely to be true, right? Little do you know. This film is adapted by directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, co-authors of “Bad Santa,” from a biography of Russell by Steven McVickers.
Steven began his adult life with a cop’s badge on his chest and a determination to be the best man he could be. He abuses his investigative power as a police officer and tracks down his birth mother, only to be rejected by her. Something snaps and his life’s secret — he’s gay — becomes his defining characteristic. He leaves his “praise Jesus” wife (Leslie Mann, “Funny People”), runs off, hooks up with Jimmy (Rodrigo Santoro, “Post Grad”), and life becomes a bowl of Judy Garland CDs.
With one problem: In order to give Jimmy a life of leisure, Steven has to become a con artist. While good for his bank account, it’s lousy for his ability to stay out of jail. After Jimmy dies of AIDS, Steven lands in the House of Bars, where he meets the aforementioned Phillip Morris and falls head over heels.
The two lovers are separated when Steven gets out, but he then pretends to be a lawyer and pulls off an early release for Phillip. On the outside, Russell once again falls into a life of chicanery so he can provide his loved one with the gewgaws of good living. The scam artist is so good at what he does, so convincing at becoming other people, he talks his way into becoming the CFO of a large company and finding a way to skim some cream. And then it’s back to prison.
He’s good, slipping only occasionally into his mannerisms.
The film’s last prison break is mind-bogglingly complicated, the setup taking nearly a year to perfect, but it’s all true.
Whether or not you have any sympathy for Russell depends almost entirely on your degree of affection for Carrey as a performer. He’s good in the role, slipping only occasionally into the mannerisms his detractors dislike so much, but slip he does, and every time it happens, you’re reminded that you’re watching Jim Carrey and not Steven Russell.
McGregor, a much finer actor, gets lost in Phillip Morris. So good is he, I wished the role had been better written — not by the writers, but by fate. Phillip is a limp rag of a man, at the mercy of anyone more aggressive. He’s a delicate flower pressed between the pages of the book of life.
Be warned that the first section of the film is gay sex-heavy. This is not a movie for children, maiden aunts or, according to Ricky Gervais, sensitive Scientologists.