June 17, 2011

Love sure is a funny thing...

Some movies hit you as instant classics. Others are just junk. Then there are all the in-between ones, from unoriginal/entertaining to original/weird.

I Love You Phillip Morris, which we just watched, is unique and entertaining. And yes weird. Good weird.

Though this fact-based romantic comedy has its flaws, they're mostly overcome by its consistently sweet, funny tone and one of the best performances of Jim Carrey's career.

When a film opens with a title announcing "This really happened," then adds after a beat, "It really did," you know you're in for some kind of a rollercoaster ride. I Love You Phillip Morris, based on events wilder than anything you could dream up, is a delirious comedy that remains on track largely thanks to Jim Carrey's goofy but grounded performance.

As Stephen Russell, a gay Houdini who broke out of Texas prisons repeatedly to be with his beloved ex-cellmate, Carrey pushes the comedy to the limits. It's Brokeback Mountain in prison starring Ace Ventura.

In the film's opening, Stephen narrates from a hospital bed as his vital signs drop: "Love sure is a funny thing. Makes you happy, makes you sad, makes you do all sorts of things you never thought you'd do before. In fact, love's the reason I'm laying here dying..." he muses, recalling days when he lived a sanitized, bogus life.

He was married with a couple of kids, played the organ at his hand-clapping church and pounded the beat as a cop. After a crisis jarringly reminds him you only go around once, Stephen rockets out of the closet ready to make up for lost time. He arrives in Miami determined to live in Elton John level opulence. And if paying for it means staying afloat through phony insurance claims and credit-card scams, well, a fella's got to live, right?

Stephen is eventually nabbed and fellow convict Phillip, played by Ewan McGregor as an eyelash-batting Southern coquette, falls for him in a matter of minutes.

Stephen, a master of bribery, courts his bunkmate with first-class chow and boombox oldies. When a night screamer frazzles Phillip's nerves, Stephen hires an inmate to thrash him into silence. Phillip mists up, declaring, "That is the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for me."

In the couple's scenes, Carrey turns down his mania and becomes a fraud unexpectedly touched by true love. Time and again he engineers wild schemes to reunite with his man. In the end it's his misguided attempts to live like royalty that strain the relationship; Phillip just wants to settle down into the suburban routine that Stephen disdains. He's a crook, but his narration half-convinces us that the people he embezzles from have it coming. They are soooo boring.

The flick makes a wild case for antisocial behavior, and the story itself is a cleverly designed con job that echoes Stephen's swindles. I Love You, Phillip Morris delights in winning our sympathy, then revealing what dupes we've been. It's hard to hate a sociopath with such an affable grin. And it sure is fun to watch him.


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