Thursday, December 16, 2010

Jim Carrey compelling as a con man

Jim Carrey brings dynamo force to the story of a brilliant con man and the guy he loved.
Jim Carrey might be the closest we’ll ever get to a perpetual motion machine in movies. Carrey's irrepressible will seems to drive everything he does, but his high-beam energy and toothy smile serve seldom have served him better than in I Love You Phillip Morris, a movie based on the true story of con man Steven Russell.

During a criminal career that was most active during the ‘90s, Russell posed as an attorney and as a chief financial officer. He was caught a variety of times, and staged several escapes from prison. He evidently excelled at being a criminal and at sidestepping the consequences of his actions -- at least for a while.

Directors Glen Ficarra  and John Requa treat Russell’s story as a platform for energetic comedy, moving from scene-to-scene with hells-a-poppin’ fury. They give the movie a near-antic quality that both complements Carrey’s performance and obliterates thinking time for the audience. It’s almost as if Ficarra and Requa decided that Russell’s story was so intriguing, they had no reason to tack on thematic exclamation points.

Still, I Love You Phillip Morris is more than a con-man caper movie. It’s also a gay love story that blossoms during one of Steven’s prison sentences. In a Texas penitentiary, Steven meets Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a sensitive southerner who looks to Steven for both love and protection.

Carrey and McGregor play a convincing duet. Phillip falls under Steven's spell, devoting most of his attention to his lover. Steven, on the other hand, juggles a cornucopia of activities – his life with Phillip, his various scams and lots of wanton spending.

None of this has anything to do with how the movie starts. When the movie opens, Steven -- working as a police officer at the time -- is living what appears to be a conventional life. He's married to a religious woman (Leslie Mann) with whom he has a daughter.

When Steven tells us about his gayness – in a narration that runs throughout the movie – he does so with zesty relish. He treats his gayness in breezy, by-the-way fashion. Like just about everything else in Steven’s life, his sexual orientation is presented as an in-your-face fact, not as an issue for judgment.

Steven either doesn’t see (or refuses to acknowledge that he sees) anything strained about announcing his gayness while he’s still married. And although, Steven often experiences bouts of panic when the police are closing in, he appears to be immune to either guilt or remorse – except perhaps in matters concerning Phillip.

A sense of infectious wildness pervades the material, which requires a generous appreciation of absurdity. If the movie had a mantra, it might go something like this: The world is loopy. Don't try to make sense of it.

I don’t know exactly what we learn from Steven’s story, but I do know that I Love You Phillip Morris moves in lively fashion and that Carrey has delivered a performance that amounts to a sustained act of daring. Not because he's playing a gay man, but because he's playing a character who does despicable things -- but usually without shame. It’s almost as if Steven’s so damn confident about his dynamism that he believes no one possibly could hold his criminality against him.

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