Jim Carrey is great at playing a con man. His elastic body, wild-eyed, rubbery face, his gift for voices and accents, and the adrenaline-rush chutzpah of his demeanor make him 100 percent credible as a character lying and scamming his way through life. A character like Steven Russell, a real-life con artist, serial imposter, and habitual prison escapee, whose bizarro true story unfolds in the audacious, but never quite convincing comedy, I Love You Phillip Morris. Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Bad Santa), the movie introduces Steven (Carrey) as a young deputy sheriff in Virginia; he has a perky, Christian wife (Leslie Mann) an adorable little girl, and he plays the organ in church.
He’s also secretly gay, until a near-fatal car crash sends him out of the closet with a vengeance—complete with Miami condo, mini-dogs, and a sexy Latino lover (Rodrigo Santoro). But it’s an expensive lifestyle, and the complex frauds he sets up to support it land Steven in prison, where he meets beguiling, sweet-natured Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), the “love of his life.” Over the next few years, in and out of jail, Steven’s crimes escalate in complexity and ingenuity as he showers the trusting Phillip with everything money can buy, yet denies him the one thing Phillip needs: Steven’s honesty.
It’s a bravura performance from Carrey (does he ever give any other kind?), who attacks the part with fearless gusto. But we’ve seen him go over the top so often, there’s nothing to distinguish it from a dozen other Jim Carrey comedy performances, while his quiet, tender scenes with McGregor and Santoro rarely evoke enough genuine emotion to invest us in the character. And while the real-life Russell’s scams were far more audacious than fiction (he’s currently serving a 144-year sentence in maximum security in Texas), the script skims along the surface of facts that might have explained how he managed to dupe so many, so often. (Simply prompting a judge to cite a legal precedent that pertains to his client isn’t the same as winning the case, to give one example, but the scene ends before imposter-lawyer Steven has to try to connect the dots.) The last scam in the movie is definitely the best, but while stars and filmmakers make a gutsy attempt on this stranger-than-fiction saga, it never feels like more than a frolicsome diversion. (R) 98 minutes. (★★1/2) | LJ