Little more than the poor, gay man's Catch Me If You Can, I Love You Phillip Morris is based on an undeniably fascinating and bizarre true story but falls miles short in the filmmaking department. Steven Jay Russell, for those who don't know, is a southern conman who successfully bluffed and impersonated his way into jobs as a judge, cop, doctor, and most notably CFO of North American Medical Management, embezzled millions of dollars, and escaped from jail over and over again throughout the better part of the 90s, all while falling in love with and securing the release of fellow inmate Phillip Morris. His escapes were impossibly daring and creative and the depth of his financial deception puts even Frank Abagnale to shame. No, there's nothing wrong with the story — just the filmmaking.
The movie leaves out very little of Russell's actual story, which is admirable and certainly keeps things fast-paced, but has the unfortunate side effect of making the story feel wildly repetitive. You can only watch so many cons and escapes played out at high speed before you're kind of like "eh, I get it." I'm not sure how Steven Spielberg was able to pull off keeping it so fresh and exciting in Catch Me If You Can, but of course I'm not making a movie about an elusive conman, so I don't need to — the problem is that Phillip Morris directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa don't seem quite sure either. And the movie is tonally all over the place, occasionally hinting at a more traditional Jim Carrey comedy and then becoming a straight-faced drama or romance with little rhyme, reason, or warning from scene to scene.
Jim Carrey does a fairly good job as Russell, giving him the somehow simultaneously charismatic and off-putting charm of a sleazy but talented salesman while visibly softening in his scenes across from Ewan McGregor's Phillip Morris. (I've never seen any video of the real Steven Russell so I don't know how accurate Carrey is, but I don't really care either.) I can't get behind the trailer's claims that the role is "daring" — unless you've accidentally fallen through time to the 1970s, playing a gay man onscreen is not exactly controversial or subversive anymore — but it's good. McGregor I'm a more uncertain on, although the problem is likely more in the script than the actor. His American accent is definitely better than it was in The Men Who Stare at Goats, but Phillip Morris is more a prop than a true, rounded character, mostly just asked to camp it up and let Carrey play off of him.
By no means did I hate the film. As I said, it's a damn interesting story. Problem is that I was more engaged looking up and reading about Steven Jay Russell on my own time after getting home than I was watching the movie about him. I Love You Phillip Morris' ultimate value is less that of a film and more of visual CliffsNotes, especially when we already have a movie, Catch Me If You Can, that tells a remarkably similar story with much more energy and verve.
2 Stars out of 5